I STARTED READING Kate Zambreno’s incandescent new book The Light Room a month before its publication date during a camping trip with my ten year old at Bear Mountain State Park under a sky gone hazy and orange from the smoke of Canadian wildfires. We wore masks heldover from the pandemic to keep the particulate matter out of our lungs because the air was so toxic. The horizon was indistinct. The air smelled like a campfire. My kid said the smoke was making the world wavy. We went out in kayaks on Breakneck Pond when the air quality index dropped from hazardous to moderate. I had to weigh the safety risks of taking him outdoors in that miasma against my maternal desire to make magic for him, and to find solace in nature. (Now we know it was the worst wildfire related pollution event in recorded U.S. history.) It seemed a fitting situation to dive into Zambreno’s ninth book, which is about parenting a toddler and an infant in central Brooklyn during the pandemic. The tension between crisis and joy resonated with me on a deep level as a parent, a writer, and a reader, as did the attention to the fine art of caretaking. I spoke with the author about the book’s themes after getting back home to New York City from my camping trip.
Emily Raboteau: Could you talk about how you found solace in nature during that dark and isolating time of protracted crisis? And about the Forest School in Prospect Park in particular—its philosophy and what it did for your family to participate in that community during the pandemic.
Kate Zambreno: I think so much of the outside forest school—which met on Tuesday mornings—was about feeling a sense of community, amidst the isolation of our bubbles—and also the bubble of the postpartum period. It was about being outdoors but it was also about being with others. Being in a community, among parents and caregivers watching children play in mud and climb trees—I was so isolated and in despair during that very early postpartum period, it was actually a form of survival for me. Something about being outdoors together, about children being able to be outdoors playing during that period in the pandemic—it felt like optimism, toward the way mutual support and education for children could look, and I think part of that was the forest school philosophy of self-reliance, learning from the outdoors.
ER: Sounds also like it was a healing routine bordering on ritual. You return often to parks, playgrounds, and green spaces in your book as an antidote to dystopia. “How apocalyptic and unstable everything felt…The encroachment of fascism. But still we watched our children play.” One of my happiest memories from the spring of 2020, when we were sheltering in place, happened on the basketball court at J. Hood Wright Park in Washington Heights, where I taught my younger kid, then seven, to ride a bike. It was a windy day. I lifted my hands from the seat and he realized he was doing it on his own. He said it felt like flying. Like he was the one making the wind. What was one of your most transcendent outdoor moments with your children during the pandemic?
Something about being outdoors together, about children being able to be outdoors playing during that period in the pandemic—it felt like optimism, toward the way mutual support and education for children could look. . .
KZ: I felt aware, returning to Prospect Park through the seasons, how it had been used as a commons for more than a century, a series of green spaces to return to, even though many of the historical structures stood as ruins, repurposed by children. And during this pandemic, and other crises the parks have witnessed, these ordinary events still happened, took on even more momentum—like teaching your child to ride a bike. I too cherished any opportunity for my oldest, who was three at the beginning of the pandemic and is now almost seven, to experience bodily freedom. Climbing up the mountain of dirt in Prospect Park, near the Long Meadow, that we called Dirt Mountain. Rolling down a hill of leaves in the Nethermead. Kneeling at the foot of the linden tree and making a ball of mud, just being one with the ball of mud. My child feeling joy, forgetting for a moment any sense of claustrophobia or containment. It took away a little of the grief that I was feeling, about what it means to be a person in the world now.
ER: Speaking of being a person in the world now, how were you impacted by the smoke that recently shut the city back down? Did it remind you of when we were sheltering in place in the first phase of the pandemic?
KZ: There was such a sense of dislocation that week, especially with time. My toddler woke up disoriented, asking me why it was night in the morning, and I didn’t know what to tell her, because originally I didn’t know. Why was there a sun at night? There was that initial confusion, followed by a growing awareness that we were experiencing an atmospheric disturbance—a disturbance to the sense of day and the idea of the outdoors—one that so many out West and elsewhere have been viscerally experiencing for some time. And yes, also that familiar worry over disappointing our children from lack of magic or joy, missing out on fun activities around the end of the school year. I felt a layered sense of history—remembering when schools were abruptly canceled, the feeling of alienation from the outdoors in March 2020, when we didn’t know whether we were safe outside, amidst the commons of the parks in NYC, us being cooped up at home with children and with ourselves. And then later when the outdoors seemed the only safe place to be together with others, and a way, I think, to escape outside of ourselves.
I kept on thinking of that Juliana Spahr poem she wrote after 9/11, when she was living in Brooklyn, the one the scholar Heather Davis writes to in her meditation on atmospheric thinking, an atmospheric commons, written after the Paris agreement: “How lovely and doomed this connection of everyone with lungs.” I kept thinking of the poem those couple days we were again inside to avoid the smoke. I was potty training my toddler, because the ordinary still persists, even amidst crisis. How connected we are to everyone, how we are always breathing in the outside (this is Heather Davis again)—the air, others, the particulate matter.
Pick up a copy of The Light Room today.
ER: The subtitle of your book is On Art and Care. Yet it’s also on parenthood, time, mourning, light, enchantment, and struggling with depression. Though not strictly chronological, it is structured around the seasons, which you are teaching your older daughter about in the absence of formal preschool. We return to a particular linden tree in Prospect Park as the seasons go by, and as your girls grow. Do you think of the work as a calendar? A time capsule? An awakening? Fragments? Essays?
KZ: That line from Etel Adnan is important to the book’s form: “Why do seasons who regularly follow their appointed time, deny their kind of energy to us?” Originally I wanted it to take place across four seasons, but instead it’s more of a layered memory of seasons. I like thinking of it as a calendar. It reminds me of Yuji Agematsu’s calendar-like grids for his zip assemblages, the ephemera he picks up on the streets of New York, made into decaying sculptures of a day. I like thinking of it as a document. The conceptual projects of Bernadette Mayer, like Midwinter Day, which I write toward in the last section. So much of the book is a love letter to the notebook or diary, especially when thinking through the outside world—Derek Jarman’s gardening notebooks, David Wojanrowicz’s grief journals, May Sarton’s diaries, Jonas Mekas’ Walden, the pillow book of Sei Shōnagan.
ER: While caregiving at home, postpartum, you taught a class called “After Nature,” online at Sarah Lawrence College in 2020-2021. Presumably you were also recording many of the meditations that populate this book. I’m curious about this class. How did you manage to teach it? How did the assignments you gave your students affect your thinking and process as you composed The Light Room?
KZ: Two weeks after I gave birth I began teaching that yearlong undergraduate writing course. I called it “After Nature” because I wanted us to think past the traditional way nature writing has been canonized, written by white, Western, male writers, and to also acknowledge that we are living in time of solastalgia, that many feel grief or displacement, from a home that doesn’t exist anymore, and often alienated from the outdoors, from privileged ideas of “nature,” and thinking of the outdoors within a city (so informed by your work, Emily!). I have now taught the class for three years—two years online, and then this past year in person, and I’ve learned (really) as much from students as they’ve learned from me. We have kind of figured out the class together. I’m still trying to figure it out.
ER: How has it transformed?
KZ: The first year felt really meaningful, a balm—even though it was agonizing and hard on my body not to have maternity leave, it was a strange blessings of sorts to be able to teach it remotely, at first from the couch, sometimes with the camera off and nursing—my undergrads were mostly in their childhood bedrooms, and the walks I would have them take around their neighborhood were a release for them. The very simple fieldwork or research I would ask them to do in their notebooks became their own beautiful experiments.
My teaching often comes from having students keep notebooks, and during the pandemic, especially in this class, I had students write communal notebooks, in a Google docs, like we are doing now, so there is often an epistolary and collective feeling to them, as they wrote their feelings and thoughts of being a person in time and space to each other. There were student writers who wrote about the atmospheric disturbances from forest fires in Oregon and California, and about the freeze in Texas, and also about observing frogs in a local pond or squirrels from their window.
ER: What’s on your syllabus, if you don’t mind sharing?
KZ: I often teach your wonderful collaborative essay “Climate Signs,” we read the opening chapters of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the weather reports that were published at The Believer a while back, Lydia Davis’s The Cows along with John Berger’s essay on looking at animals, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. . . I still often teach those works but also works that might not be considered part of the nature writing contemporary canon— Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s Borealis, a notebook on Alaska (and queer romance and the “black outdoors” and the collages of Lorna Simpson), Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream (thinking through how to write toxicity), Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, Etel Adnan’s Surge (the last two texts thinking through how to write seasonally), Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue (with a prompt, written by Bhanu for me long ago, about making markings while walking around a campus setting, thinking through indigenous history, communal history, the history of the trees and the plants).
ER: What an enticing reading list! Has your pedagogy changed now that we’ve returned to teaching in person?
KZ: Teaching in person this year, I began to stop teaching, if that makes sense. I tried to think through Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s idea of study, as something that people do together to try to learn together, whether it’s taking a walk or dancing or reading something together. We sat outside, especially in the fall, in this circle of chairs, and listened to the birds. We left offerings underneath the Japanese maple after reading Ban en Banlieue. We went on walks, often guided by students wanting to show me places on campus. We laid on the grass and looked up at the sky together. And every week they wrote notebooks to each other over the Google docs, these incredibly beautiful and casual and poetic documents of what it felt like to live now. When Sofia Samatar and Elvia Wilk came to speak to the graduate writing program we went to the talks together (I teach their brilliant essays on thinking and feeling through collective crisis and climate change, both Sofia’s transhistorical “Standing at the Ruins,” and Elvia Wilk’s newest collection.)
ER: Speaking of the writer and scholar Sofia Samatar, I felt like the most intimate and least fraught relationship described in your book was between you and her. She’s been your correspondent in previous work and her text messages land in this text like little life rafts that feel outside the time and space of your chaotic, if also cozy, domestic sphere. I had a regular correspondence during the first year of the pandemic with my doppelgänger, the Paris-based Turkish writer Ayşegül Savaş, which was a similar saving grace to my interior life. What did Sofia’s friendship mean to you in those years?
Read more pandemic penpal correspondences in Orion’s Together Apart series.
KZ: Well, Sofia is the most brilliant person I’ve ever known, and with that there is also such care, such attentive thinking and feeling to the world. She’s a genius who also lives an ethical and thoughtful life. I think she’s the only person who I can complain about my domestic sphere to, who I can tell about my children’s medical appointments or financial pressures, but who then also holds my writing life as dear and important and worth protecting. This is an invaluable gift for me. I truly hope that I return this, in part, that I am there for her, that I see her as an ordinary person and caretaker and worker in all of that exhaustion and also know that she and the world will deeply suffer if there’s not more work from her, if the conditions are not possible to allow her to think and write.
I also credit Sofia with getting me involved in thinking through the collective and climate, its grief and potentials for a radical optimism. This year we began to formalize the way that we often think together, first on a collaborative project on tone in literature, which is thinking through how literature can be relational, written in a first-person plural, that Columbia University Press is publishing in November. But this tone project is the first collaboration in attempting to think through the outside together, the atmosphere, to being-with, not just being. Away from the individual I.
ER: I look forward to reading that collaboration! You give a lot of rich detail in the book about breastfeeding the baby. I felt keenly aware of you as a mammal, of your body both nurturing and in pain, and the toll it took on your sleep and sanity.
KZ: Yes, and I think that’s why I’m so obsessed in the section, “Hall of Ocean Life,” with polar bears and beluga whales nursing for long periods of time (that research came from the online literature lecture I taught at Sarah Lawrence, at the same time as the After Nature class, on The Animal.)
ER: Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ terrific Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Animals would be a fitting addition to both classes, if you don’t already teach it.
KZ: It would!
ER: At one point you refer to your project as “a notebook of seasons and exhaustions,” a form you call, “translucencies.” Tell me, why does the term “translucencies” capture that era for you?
KZ: There was such a sense of being spread thin that I was almost translucent—there was light shining through me. Something almost mystical to the postpartum exhaustion I felt—this complete decreation.
ER: I misread that at first as “desecration.” How did you physically manage to get writing done while also nursing, caregiving, and teaching?
KZ: Almost all of the writing I have done since having children has been on a couch, when a baby is napping on top of me or nursing, scribbling in my notebook. The naps became my time, and a time that had to be quiet, so it became a form of solitude for me. In terms of physically managing, honestly, I don’t think I’ve yet recovered from the burnout of my body overworking during those years, still overworking, being contingent labor and teaching more than full-time while still nursing a toddler, having two young children at home. I’m ground totally to pieces. I know I’m not alone in that regard.
ER: No, you’re not alone.
There was such a sense of being spread thin that I was almost translucent—there was light shining through me. Something almost mystical to the postpartum exhaustion I felt—this complete decreation.
KZ: I will say that for me, the notebook space where the original movement, “Lightboxes” began, was my solitude, my way of existing, and documenting that time, so it felt less like work for me and more like a total necessity. The real work I do on writing—the revision, that intense push to give it shape, to feel like writing—happens by necessity during December and in the summer months off. It’s impossible to really push myself during the teaching part of the year.
ER: Right before I read your book, I reviewed Kristen R. Ghodsee’s Everyday Utopia, a survey of the feminist strains in two millennia of utopian thought and community, in which (among other things) she argues against the institution of the nuclear family and also examines the socialist roots of progressive education in her case for liberating women. These themes overlapped nicely with yours. Historically, utopian ideas flower during crises. You write frankly and vividly about the inflection point of the pandemic, the crucible of not having any help, the lack of access to grandparents and extended kinship networks, the gendered imbalance of domestic labor, the capitalist grind of continual work, and the claustrophobia in your small apartment, to which you were largely confined. The resentment and exhaustion of it all. How severely the pandemic showed the cracks in the plaster. At the same time, through the forest school, you participated in a cooperative caregiving model in the commons of the sort that Ghodsee might call utopian.
“It will never be like this again,” you write, “so sweet and so awful.” We were isolated then, but also forced into more creative interdependencies, like parenting pods. Looking back on it, do you miss that time?
KZ: I believe the isolation as well as the possibilities of the collective that I experienced caretaking during the pandemic have made me alive toward other possibilities of the collective and care. It’s been a radicalizing moment for me. Learning about the socialist roots of progressive education, which I write about in the book, has made me even more critical of what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism,” in terms of how we think about education, from the grotesque hierarchy of early education to the extreme debt that my grad students get into, all while trying to find a sense of community. I think that this experience of isolation and alienation—parenting without any support, save for my partner, without any maternity leave, without any care from the institutions where I teach and publish—has completely remade me as a person. It’s why I’ve become more involved in organizing adjuncts, at Sarah Lawrence, where I’ve been a “guest” for a decade, and more than organizing, having conversations with others, being chatty, trying to find creative ways of being together, finding community.
I have been thinking along parallel terms to what you beautifully describe—the moments of mutual aid and being together amidst crisis. For a while Sofia Samatar and I were going to do a series of conversations around this, around utopia in dystopian literature—I really want to think through Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall, the 1970s Austrian novel that is about the end of the world, but also about caretaking and slowness and attention, and thinking of the kinship between animals and humans.
ER: I was struck by this passage in the final movement of your book, “Translucencies,” which shifts into the third person:
She remembered, after seeing her friend, how grounded that first year had felt, although somewhat isolating as well. Regular dates in the park, where they could vent to each other, talk about what they were planning for dinner. Worse now that the world had gone on, but they were still in the bubble, only now more alone. The privacy she now felt, and the strain.
It made me feel sad to think that some of the progress made to escape the box of the nuclear family into lateral friendships and alloparenting may have been lost or forgotten in the return to “normalcy”/ the status quo now that the pandemic has phased into endemic time. But then again, we have many more crises to look forward to that will remind folks of the importance of kinship, if they need reminding.
KZ: Yes, isn’t that interesting, the way that crisis returns us to the fact that we are all in this together, if we let ourselves, if we don’t isolate ourselves. I felt this during the week of smog—the neighbor that left us masks as we didn’t have any, the text chains with other moms just talking through our days. In that section I’m describing an agonized sense of isolation, when my youngest wasn’t able to be vaccinated yet—we felt we were still in the bubble, but I was expected to (over)work and just have life go on—capitalism just rolls on. So many of us still feel this from the lack of care from our employers, when our children are sick, as our children have been so sick, like a collective immune system has gone berserk, we are just supposed to keep working, somehow muddle through without childcare.
ER: It’s brutal. Without extended kinship networks and adequate state support, it’s pulverizing. Saidiya Hartman has said, “care is the antidote to violence.”
KZ: This brutality, in all of its ordinariness, is how most of us live now, and these overlapping crises are slow, ongoing, constant. I miss the grounding of being at the park regularly, by ourselves and with others, the collective feeling I felt with both the trees and with fellow caregivers. I think this has to do with this sense of working constantly—as is the state of so many of us, the conditions of our constant precarities. I do hopefully try to find friendships and community among other mothers, us texting each other to see how we are. Although I miss the feeling of regularly returning to the same space, being able to observe it over the seasons, its return, its changes. I miss the elder trees.
ER: I miss the cacerolazo, the whole neighborhood clapping and banging on pots nightly to cheer on the essential workers. How it ritualistically marked time. I admire how much attention you pay in The Light Room to domestic labor and care work that is usually invisible, and also how honest you are about how difficult it is. Toward the end of your book you quote Sofia Samatar recalling something that Silvia Federici, theorist of invisible domestic labor, said in an interview about how we exaggerate the importance of what we can do alone. Sofia asks the rhetorical question, “what is the nuclear family and middle-class motherhood in this country, other than constantly exaggerating the importance of what you can do alone?” Care to elaborate?
KZ: Yes, this is in a conversation that Federici did about what she calls “sad politics.” Federici is speaking about joy as an activating feeling, that it doesn’t mean you’re happy or acquiescent with your situation, but that you want to transform your situation, to think your way out of it, with other people. I like the idea of thinking our way out of feeling trapped with constant invisible labor and carework that is not valued. How do we think our way out of it? Maybe we aren’t doing it alone if we’re writing about it to each other, if we’re complaining, if we’re holding space to talk and write about it. I’m more invested in also honoring sadness however—and anger—as their own activating feelings.
I think that this experience of isolation and alienation—parenting without any support, save for my partner, without any maternity leave, without any care from the institutions where I teach and publish—has completely remade me as a person.
ER: I appreciate how your project documents the artistry and meaning in domestic caretaking work, which is so often undervalued and underrecognized. And also, as you say, how “to be an artist is to be close to childhood.” You spend a lot of time creating magic for your kids. Bubbles, books, boxes, nooks, crafts, costumes, marbles, wooden toys, farm animals, fairy gardens, light boxes, rainbow blocks, birthday parties, balloons. Is reenchantment the tradeoff for the overwork of mothering, in your view?
KZ: I’m thinking again of Silvia Federici, who says that if we say carework is love, then we disregard that it’s labor, often alienated labor. I think there can be a trap to thinking that mothers are supposed to be the forces of enchantment for our children, or that the exhaustion accompanied by that work is made okay by the magic of it all. When I read the book now I’m struck by how obsessed I am with trying to create beauty and joy for my oldest—the rainbow blocks, the balloons, the craft projects, the light boxes. I’m less fixated on making that magic now. I wonder what kind of childhood trauma I was trying to soothe with that—my children’s? My own?
ER: You seemed desperate bordering on perturbed to me, as a reader. Absolutely manic in your attempt to exert control through ostensibly unstructured play. Understandably so, under the haywire circumstances. I’ve been there myself. Particularly around organizing outlandish birthday parties–a twisted cultural phenomenon you also write about. You should have seen the coronovirus piñata I crafted when my kid turned eight in March, 2021. That glorious moment when the masked children lined up in Bennett Park to smash the coroñata with a baseball bat was more for us parents than for them. We wanted so much to make up for what we felt they were robbed. I spent unhinged hours making that thing out of paper mache and pipe cleaners. My mother has theorized that so many women of our generation behave this way in part because we feel guilty for spending so much time working. She’s probably right.
KZ: Oh my god! Still, a glorious moment. Like the collective glow of children in Halloween costumes flooding the city streets, how many decades this has occurred. I think that’s why in the last section I begin to have more of a generational plurality, inspired by Annie Ernaux’s The Years, thinking about the overdoneness of holidays, especially the birthday parties, that are always so much work, despite how casually it seems thrown together.
ER: You spent a lot of time in that section of the book on the internet combing Montessori mom blogs and deciding which set of European animal figurines was best.
KZ: I think in that movement—which I call Medici Slot Machines, after Joseph Cornell—I lean into the absurdities of trying to create a childhood through objects, that collecting impulse. My preschooler was home for the year, and I felt I had to essentially home-school her, and I felt this sense of overwhelming guilt that she was missing out on sweetness and care, also because of absent extended family. I still honor trying to find space for open play now, and feel often charmed by their creative chaos and assemblages, when I’m not often annoyed because I will have to pick it up later. But also the book meditates on the box practices of artists such as Joseph Cornell and David Wojnarowicz, who made art out of collecting and organizing the ritualistic talismans of their childhoods.
ER: Right. In addition to those two artists you also ponder the work of Natalia Ginzburg, Yuko Tsushima, Bernadette Mayer, Etel Adnan and others. Wojnarowicz’s artmaking allows you to really meditate on collective crisis, ecological loss, and the need for ritual. He feels like an angel haunting the book. What does his work unlock for you? Have you figured out for yourself answers to the questions you pose in the the section about his grief journals–“what beauty can come out of mourning, whether the mourning of others can exist alongside the mourning of a dying planet, and whether it’s permissible for mourning to exist alongside an ecstatic contemplation of the natural world”?
KZ: The writing of David Wojnarowicz, both his notebooks and how they are more formalized in Close to the Knives, has been extremely formative for me—how they contain deep wells of mourning and rage and also friendship and beauty, his sensitivity to animals and the natural world. The second movement of the book, my meditation on Wojnarowicz’s grief journals and ecological thinking, first came from a lecture I gave at Harvard’s Divinity School, weeks before the pandemic, when I was also unbearably nauseous with the early months of a second pregnancy. Wojnarowicz’s work—his art and writing—is always read as a reaction to the crisis of his lifetime, of having friends die of AIDS, of dying of AIDS himself. I think he is a model of an artist and an activist who lived and died with grace and dignity, within his grief and fury, even when he and his loved ones were treated with such hatred.
But I was also interested in the descriptions of the captive beluga whales that begin his elegiac essay on helping to take care of his best friend and mentor Hujar as he is dying in Close to the Knives, and trying to find in the Fales archives the unfinished film. So much of his work is unfinished, is about the ritual and process—and in his notebooks, I found an ecological gaze that persists in this later work—an awareness of the natural beauty of the outside world, a layered sense of friendship and history, a kindred feeling with animals and their grief. His work, his ardent first-person, is radiant with others, ecstatic and contemplative and howling with fury and grief. To me he is a model that an “I” can be thinking toward the collective, can be thinking toward the crisis of one’s body and time, as well as mourning and caring for the world and others.
Kate Zambreno’s many books include the novel Drifts and a study of Hervé Guibert, To Write As If Already Dead. The Light Room, a meditation on art and care, is out from Riverhead this summer. She is the Strachan Donnelley Chair in Environmental Writing at Sarah Lawrence College and teaches graduate nonfiction at Columbia University. Tone, a collaboration with Sofia Samatar, is forthcoming from Columbia University Press. She was a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction. She’s raising two children in Brooklyn.
Emily Raboteau’s books are the novel The Professor’s Daughter, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, (winner of an American Book Award) and Lessons for Survival, forthcoming from Holt in Spring, 2024. She teaches creative writing at the City College of New York and is a contributing editor at Orion. She’s raising two children in the Bronx.