“Gestures of Refusal”: A Conversation with Sarah Bernstein and Daisy Lafarge

“Why do we want our characters to be innocent, as if we are innocent ourselves?”

Study for Obedience is the remarkable second novel by Canadian novelist and academic Sarah Bernstein, published in the UK by Granta and in North America by Knopf Canada. A dark rural fable concerned with paranoia, withdrawal, and the Jewish Diaspora, Study for Obedience tells the story of a woman’s move to a remote country to look after her wealthy brother and his large house. In the nearby village, things start going mysteriously wrong, prompting suspicion of her arrival.

Sarah and I have been in dialogue with each other for several years, and in the margins of writing, we have shared an informal conversation around the vicissitudes of authorship. Here we begin with an interview about Study for Obedience, which opens out into a discussion about the messy affects involved in being identified with one’s work, review culture, and the demand to be “relatable” both in writing and as a public-facing author and what happens when this demand is problematized or resisted.

Daisy Lafarge (DL): When you first told me you were working on a novel that was partly concerned with the artist Paula Rego, I think I assumed that the result would be more explicitly ekphrastic. Rego’s presence in Study for Obedience feels more atmospheric or covert and seems to stem from the quote by her you use as an epigraph: “I can turn the tables and do as I want. I can make women stronger. I can make them obedient and murderous at the same time.” Can you talk a bit about what drew you to Rego and how she figures in the work?


Sarah Bernstein (SB): There are a couple of Rego’s paintings that are more directly the basis for particular passages in the book—one of a girl in a dainty white-and-pink dress, sitting in a green chair, that I think is called Moth, and The Policeman’s Daughter, which shows a young woman sitting at a table, shining a black police boot that she’s wearing on her left arm. In both these scenes, we see girls or young women (it’s often hard to tell as some of the child-size figures have very adult faces) dressed in almost excessively feminine clothing—dresses sometimes adorned with pearls, bows, in pale colors—and this softness, even girliness, seems deliberately contrasted by something in the position and appearance of their bodies. They’re muscular where one might not expect them to be, with slightly sinister expressions, holding themselves in positions that at first glance seem inviting but upon closer inspection look like a dare or a threat. We see women who are supposed to be in positions of subservience who appear to have usurped the position of authority.

I was very interested in Rego’s handling of this ambivalence. It’s clear that the structures of power have not changed in the world of Rego’s paintings. In The Maids, the mistresses are both white, with ashy-white or pinkish skin, while the maids in uniform have darker skin. So we know that the systems of patriarchy, of white supremacy, are still very much present—there’s no doubt about that. And yet, the wives, daughters, domestic servants depicted here refuse absolutely to accede to the logic of the world as it is, even as they undertake their usual acts of service. How is this possible? I became a bit obsessed with Rego’s depiction of this complicated dynamic in these apparently simple scenes. I wondered if it would be possible to explore it in language, too.


DL: I’m also fascinated by that coinciding of what Rego calls obedience and murderousness. In Study for Obedience, the narrator is overaware of her capacity for obedience, but underaware of her murderousness, a dynamic that ends up fueling the murderous parts all the more because she believes herself to be acting obediently. Devotion itself becomes a kind of weapon. What did you want to explore with your depiction of the narrator’s obedience, and why?


SB: On some level I was thinking about how people who benefit materially from unequal structures of power are impoverished, even destroyed, by the very process of maintaining these structures at the expense of other people. Nobody is thriving under these systems.

I wanted to work through a certain aspect of that, namely whether (in a novel) a character who is supposed to occupy positions of obedience and passivity can mobilize these to gain leverage in some way. Can these be tactics or gestures of refusal, seeming to operate according to the dominant order of the world, but with such an intensity that they undo or erode that order? I think we had some of these discussions—about something you might call “radical passivity”—in relation to your novel Paul when it came out, too.


DL: You described this novel to me as being more concerned with exploring Jewish heritage and identity than your previous books. The narrator is perpetually aware of how her present sits within the localized past: she is in the country her ancestors fled to escape persecution, and the house she is staying in, exquisitely furbished by her brother, was built and inhabited by those very persecutors. To begin with, she seems to expect a communion with the villagers on this basis—a bond forged by a shared desire to move on from a fraught past. But the villagers’ initial hostility toward her only increases. Their rejection of her is contrasted with their acceptance of her brother: he is fluent in the language and seems to intuitively know how to ingratiate himself, both personally and professionally. This difference in reception seems to highlight the imposition of cultural hegemony and the punishment of individuals who do not comply. The villagers’ rejection of the narrator seems to result from her Jewishness, but I think I mean the “ish” there as the “ish” of an approximation, since she isn’t devoutly religious but does seem to channel or embody an ancestry of calamity, persecution, and dislocation. Is that something you were thinking about in composing the novel?


SB: Yes, I think one of the things that interests me about antisemitism is that part of the fear stems from the unlocatable or placeless quality of what keeps Jewish people feeling Jewish, something besides the religion itself. Exactly that “ish,” as you called it. This is why the townspeople in the book don’t experience the brother as a threat—or as much of a threat—as the narrator herself—because unlike the protagonist, he positions himself quite deliberately as someone of the place he’s living in

In terms of what keeps Jewish people feeling Jewish, I don’t think it has anything to do with the idea of a so-called homeland, either imagined or actually imposed. I sometimes think about this in relation to Yiddish—a language spoken primarily by Ashkenazi Jews whose families come from central and eastern Europe. It’s a language that is not rooted in a specific place, not bounded by a nation-state; it’s rooted in an unrooted people. So what explains the transmission of this feeling of affinity, what I guess you might call Jewish culture, or Yiddishkeit? In my case a lot of it had to do with Yiddish language and literature, especially through songs and in lullabies that I learned in school. But it also involved the study, from quite an early age, of histories of Jewish exile and genocide, including but not limited to the Holocaust. I’ve always thought about what that meant, to raise children with such an acute awareness of these shared historical calamities and, moreover, with a sense that they are ongoing in some way. I can see how this might be thought to foster a sense of community and connection, but the other side of that is that it might engender a kind of siege mentality. I don’t think it’s one or the other, obviously, but it’s a tricky line to tread. And for the purposes of the book, I wasn’t really interested in either of those two polarities anyway. I was interested in another idea—a kind of fatalism that might emerge from the way each new catastrophe seems to sit in the last and then the intergenerational transmission of that knowledge. In the novel, this is complicated in the narrator’s character and is reinforced by gendered expectations, both secular and religious.


Can Novels Make Amends?

By Ilana Blumberg


DL: Complicity is a recurring motif in the novel, one from which none of its characters are spared. The villagers are complicit in prolonging a history of discrimination, the brother is complicit in a nefarious industry and sexual misconduct, and the narrator herself is complicit in her apparent enabling of him. In addition to this emotional and domestic labor, she works remotely as a typist for a legal firm. In one instance she transcribes notes for a multinational oil firm accused of gross malfeasance; in doing so she becomes a small cog in the machine enabling its impunity. I’m so interested in the way the narrator learns to tolerate this, which entails a refusal of knowledge, a detachment of words from their meanings as she resolves to type one letter after another but not absorb information from their sequence. This says something interesting, I think, about responsibility and language, how refusals can operate internally, and perhaps as a prelude to more recognizable forms of resistance. It reminds me of the novel’s other epigraph, from Ingeborg Bachmann: “Language is punishment. It must encompass all things and in it all things must again transpire according to guilt and the degree of guilt.” Could you elaborate a little on how these themes—of complicity, guilt, and language—interact and are set to work in the novel?


SB: Yes. The narrator of this novel may have been victimized by her family, but as you point out, she’s also abdicating moral responsibility in various other areas of her life, and her incapacity to act can’t just be chalked up to the bad things that have happened to her—they’ve had an impact, of course, but they don’t completely occlude her agency elsewhere. It’s something I think she sees but can’t work her way out of, which is maybe why she uses a recursive approach to telling her own story. I envisioned the shape of the narrative as a kind of closed spiral that moves toward a center, a reason, an explanation, but never finds it. It’s an idea that is also reflected in the narrator’s interest in precision in language, in going over the same points, the same ideas, in different words, in an effort to make herself clear, to explain all these problems of complicity, power, displacement in their totality, as though such a thing were possible.

I’m not interested in the novel as a didactic or moralizing tool in any straightforward way—the politics of a novel aren’t necessarily coterminous with the narrator’s, or any other character’s, attitudes or views. Sometimes they emerge partially, with or against these characters, but usually they come out in a much more complex relation, through a novel’s representation of contradictory impulses, imperfections—in short, its representation of life—through its play with and destabilizing of language and form. In the novel, I paraphrase Barbara Guest writing something like “reading is not the equivalent of explanation.” More recently, Anne Boyer has written that she is interested in “poetry as a vehicle of social antagonism.” She writes, “I want it to be, in the very best and noblest sense of the word, evil. Or at least I never want it to be what is considered in this miserable and greedy era good.”

So that’s one thing, and it all seemed to suggest this problem of innocence and even of that nebulous thing called “relatability.” Why do we want our characters to be innocent, as if we are innocent ourselves? It seems to me that all that does is forestall any reflection on the part of the writer or the reader, to answer the questions in advance of their being posed. The idea that the process of understanding requires the object of observation to be rendered transparent, as Édouard Glissant points out, is one of the engines of imperial thought—it’s not a neutral assumption.


DL: Yes. It makes me think of “evil” in Bataille’s sense—that literature’s lack of innocence holds an immense value. And the question of relatability in literature is so bound up with reading and reviewing cultures and authorial visibility, which I know is something else we wanted to discuss in this interview. We both published our first novels in the same year (2021), having previously published books of poetry and been involved in small press / DIY scenes in the UK, and, of course, lectured on insecure contracts at various universities.

I don’t know about you, but I felt very naive about the wider publishing industry at the time, even with regard to the implications of issues that are quite obvious from a glance, around class, race, and gender. At the time of publication I felt unable and unwilling—for various reasons, the pandemic being a significant one—to perform an online or public identification with my novel, which seemed to be an unspoken expectation in the industry. It’s easy to frame this behavior as authorial self-sabotage, but I think that was only a small part of it. It’s not really to do with whether or not an author might enjoy the attention; I resented the expectation that I would suddenly metamorphose into a broadly palatable media personality, or that I was emotionally or financially stable enough to afford to be available and articulate all the time.

I’m not interested in the novel as a didactic or moralizing tool in any straightforward way.


SB: I think what’s interesting about it all is the way these expectations go unspoken, as you say. When I published my first novel, nobody ever told me to reactivate my Twitter account, to ask people to preorder the book or to write good reviews on Goodreads. How do people find this stuff out? There’s a weird economy (and I mean this in the sense of circulation as well as meanness) of knowledge in publishing that some authors seem to have access to while others don’t. This is obviously a problem of class, position, and education. There’s very little transparency in terms of disparities in treatment vis-à-vis advances, publicity, attention from editors and agents.

Even without being told, I eventually came to feel the pressure to perform, or at least I experienced a distinct sense of frustration and confusion, because I could see other authors doing all the right things on social media and doing really well out of it. But I struggled with this for a number of reasons, the easiest to explain being that although I take my work seriously, I, like other people socialized as women, experience a great deal of shame and self-loathing if my work is recognized in any way. On one hand, I want to keep writing; on the other, I don’t feel I have any right to. Which makes navigating social media, or articulating some kind of authorial persona, a bit fraught.


DL: For me it was a humiliatingly slow realization of the status quo. I was wondering how some authors seemed to have so much capacity for endless publicity events, which are mostly unpaid. Then it all made sense when I learned about the disparities in advances! The figures are so incongruous, and many readers and aspiring writers have no idea how huge sums of money go into selling certain authors and not others. At first I felt stupid for not knowing, and then angry that information isn’t more available. On top of this, there’s an enforced professional atomization that makes it hard to enact solidarities, such as boycotting certain media outlets and organizing for better conditions or more transparency. Without a broader framework of solidarity, authorial refusals become individualized as acts of piety or ingratitude for potential exposure.


SB: Where does this atomization come from? There’s a pervasive atmosphere of scarcity, but most of the writers I know individually are solid people who don’t buy into the logic of competition. And yet here we are.


DL: I’m thinking about authorial visibility and a quote from your book, which is “meekness brings out the sadist in people.” I’m curious about how the quality of critical attention a book receives is related to the visibility of the author: Is she present enough in the discourse to direct and influence the book’s critical reception? Is she aligned—or at odds with—the angle from which it has been marketed? Are certain interpretations being circulated as if these are synonymous with the author’s intentions? And if an author is too absent to respond to these, too meek an interlocutor, do you think she prompts a sadistic response?


SB: I think it’s a really interesting question, the extent to which an author decides to intervene in or even tries to direct the discourse around their book and its reception. One thing I noticed in reviews of my first book is that one reviewer had described it in a particular way, and subsequent reviewers picked up these same descriptors in their own pieces. At times it felt like the reviews were speaking to one another more than they were to the novel itself. So I can see how if I had said something about it, that might then have been picked up as the definitive reading and run with.

Sometimes I feel like the books rarely get read seriously, whether the author makes herself visible or not. I feel very lucky when reviewers really engage with my writing, even if they don’t like it. For the most part, though, it becomes about the author as product rather than the writing itself. This is something of a recent revelation to me, that visibility doesn’t necessarily encourage critics to engage any more seriously with your work; if anything it seems to make it easier to make recourse to misogynistic clichés about writing by women, often lumping a group of books together by people who appear to share demographic features—it’s solipsistic (not “universal” like a man writing about male violence, for example!); it’s claustrophobic; inward looking; it’s apolitical (who gets to determine the horizon of that thing called the “political” is always very interesting to me)—or to read it in terms of “relatability.” How is relatability a metric of literary criticism? The only thing I can discern from the term is an apparent injunction that characters, especially if they’re women, if they’re written by women, need to be legible, to operate according to recognizable social scripts, in order for them to be legitimate subjects for literature. That’s not interesting to me. Giving a reader what they already know, giving the reader a reflection of themselves and their desires, does not produce a connection between author and reader; it produces something more like a relation of sameness, where everything is known and transparent.


DL: Absolutely. It also reminds me of how your narrator describes people projecting their self-loathing onto her when they confide in her, almost as an act of self-cleansing. I sometimes wonder if this is at work in throwaway reviews and ratings—a reader dislikes the feelings a book brings up in her, so she rejects the book with a bad review, thereby purifying herself of the bad feeling …


SB: In Anarchism is Not Enough, Laura Riding says that “People will think you brilliant only if you tell them what they know.” This seems to reflect so much of review culture—in more mainstream publications as well as on socials—that bases its critiques on “feelings” or being an emotional reader rather than on anything to do with craft, style, or even ideas. It seems like reviewers sometimes don’t want to take that step from the feelings they’re having to an analysis of what the book is doing that made them feel that way. They just stop short at the gut response, rather than seeing that response as related to the book, the writing, exerting a kind of power.

We’re told on the one hand that the volume of writing about women’s interior and personal lives represents a crisis in contemporary literature—it’s turning away from history or the real world, it’s not representative of the human experience. When reviewers suggest that writers, usually writers of color, queer writers, and women, are turning away from history or turning history into a “vibe,” it shows me two things: first, that they are claiming their own authority to determine the terrain of History (with a capital H), and second, that they see history as something objective that life happens against, rather than something ongoing, that one feels and lives in the body. And so when on the other hand, we’re expected to turn our real personal lives out for public consumption, I feel like I’m being tricked, and the refusal to engage sometimes seems like the only option.

How is relatability a metric of literary criticism?

DL: It really does! Although withdrawal comes with its own problems. The times I’ve been off social media—intermittently, following the publication of my first two books—were actually more anxiety inducing than being on it, because I wasn’t permitting myself access to the things that I now accept that I need—like feeling part of an ecology of writers and readers, and the drip-feed of affirmation and enthusiasm that can come from that. I think it’s quite brutal being a writer, so I try not to judge anyone—or myself—for reaching out for what they need to get through that. What does frustrate me though is what we’ve discussed—that a writer’s success at performing her authorship—being relatable—will translate into how well she’s paid, and whether or not she can afford to continue writing.

And of course being more visible entails an endless number of things to navigate in relation to self-positioning. I’m chronically ill, for instance, and also not privately educated, or able to rely on any form of familial wealth or support—which increasingly seems like an unusual position in terms of the most successful writers and people in the publishing world I encounter. I sometimes feel it would be much easier, in the algorithmic cadence of social media, to frame myself in these representational terms (to be categorizable, and relatable, like a good character). Mostly these are things I want to occasionally gesture toward, when it seems relevant, but I don’t want them to become my defining features, or to be seen as a reason in themselves for people to read my writing. I’ve never felt coherent, and trying to present myself as such would feel like a kind of mortification …


SB: Yes, totally. I don’t think social media visibility on its own is either good or bad: it can be really great at forming bonds of solidarity and it can also be great at reinforcing existing and disempowering structures. It depends how you engage with it. For the record I love your presence, both on social media and IRL.

Because I teach, I’m not dependent on the meagre income I get from writing, which in turn means I feel comfortable enough to opt out of things that are important parts of the job for other people. On the other hand, I guess I teach partly because I like it, and partly because I don’t trust I could ever make more than a meagre income from my writing, even if I were to work out social media. So I’m also just trying to find a balance.


DL: You’re right about visibility on its own not being good or bad. It brings us back maybe to Rego’s work, and how she plays with visible signifiers of femininity. I’m grateful to Rego’s paintings—and your novel—for articulating these playful and aberrant degrees within visibility and its lack.


SB: Thank you. I’m grateful for your reading of the book and your questions. icon

Featured image: Sarah Bernstein. Photograph by Alice Meikle.