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Kate Zambreno

Kate Zambreno is the author of the novel O Fallen Angel. A book of essays centering around the women of modernism, Heroines, will be published by Semiotext(e)’s Active Agents series in fall, 2012. Zambreno writes the blog, Frances Farmer is My Sister.


"Kate Zambreno writes with the clear eyes and steady hand of a vérité filmmaker, beckoning her Ruth toward a self-redemption that hangs just out of reach, like the existential epigraphs haunting the upper margins of every chapter. What emerges is a book of feminist pre-awakening, of an author and a character in search of one another and themselves."

– Pamela Lu

"Zambreno's Ruth is literature's lost girl, the ambivalent offspring of Lispector's Macabea, Rhys' Sasha Jensen, and Plath's Esther Greenwood. A pretty, dazed American ingénue wandering the wet streets of London in search of the best little black dress, the perfect pink rouge, to make her complete. And what exactly makes Ruth so incomplete? It's the void behind her painted face, the hollow center that draws us into our green girl, our "question mark, a mystery even unto herself." For what Zambreno does ingeniously, ruthlessly, is implicate Ruth's impenetrable vacancy as our own. A harrowing, brilliant book."

– Kate Durbin

"Not since Faulkner first arrested my heart and stole my breath in The Sound and the Fury have I been as ravaged by the language of a novel as in Kate Zambreno's Green Girl. There is a poetics of desire shivering in the skin of every line. There is a momentous psychosexual arrival in her deformations of diction and syntax -- as if language itself were intimate with the body of a girl."

– Lidia Yuknavitch

"Finally, a book that makes you want to run through the streets naked and screaming and buy the perfect little black dress all at the same time. Beneath this stylish tale of youthful debauchery lies the ancient heart of modernism's grande dames. Tragic and often hilarious, Green Girl is an S.O.S. plea for the triumph of the female psyche."

– Bett Williams



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Green Girl

This is the book for all of us ready to confront our own complacency.


If you follow other blogs and websites about independent literature and publishing, you may have seen Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl cropping up on a number of lists as one of the best books of 2011. And for good reason -- Green Girl is without question one of this past year’s fiercest texts.

In 2007, when I completed my undergraduate major in Women’s and Gender Studies, I had a certain idea about what it meant to work as an artist in service to feminist and social justice movements. As a fiction writer, I felt like it was my responsibility to restore complex, three-dimensional subjectivity to marginalized and “othered” groups, that is, to use the tools of traditional, character-driven storytelling (whether realist or fabulated) to elevate voices that are often silenced and to dispel stereotypes. But after engaging with an array of transgressive and outsider artists past and present, and in the process developing my own vain and at times abrasive queer aesthetics, I have discovered there are other modes and practices that appeal more to my sensibilities. One of these is to write into, rather than counter to abjection, objectification, and stigma.

This is terrain in which Kate Zambreno excels. Her debut O Fallen Angel (which was actually written after Green Girl) was a cartoon grotesquerie, with deliberately performative, confrontational, and one-dimensional characterizations that shined a garish spotlight on American militarism, patriarchy, and conformist consumerism. Green Girl is perhaps more concerned with subjectivity, experience, and emotionality, but a subjectivity that is “shallow,” or is made shallow (by patriarchy, “the culture,” etc). Her protagonist Ruth fashions her identity after “superficial” consumer fashion objects and images from French New Wave cinema. A young American woman living and working abroad in London, Ruth is everything your most narrow-minded creative writing workshop classmates told you wouldn’t work. Rather than initiating her own dramatic arc, she is passive and reactive. Rather than having a clear objective, she is never clear what she wants, nor is it fully clear to the reader. She welcomes our gaze, then shuns it. She is the young girl as described by the poet Kate Durbin: “She is begging to be loved; she is grossed out by your attention.”

Zambreno presents us with a girl subject whose lived experiences of depression and alienation many of us would prefer to avoid. In her blurb for the book, Durbin says Zambreno implicates "Ruth’s vacancy as our own.” But so too does she implicate us as possessors of the gaze, or as those with the power to pull the young girl’s strings: Green Girl is brilliantly narrated by a maternal figure who is alternately sadistic and nurturing; this narrator self-consciously pokes and prods Ruth to see whether there is any “there” there, then holds Ruth together to prevent her from cracking.

Author Lidia Yuknavitch says Zambreno’s language creates its own “poetics of desire.” Nowhere is this more evident than in her rendering of Ruth’s job in retail, hawking a celebrity fragrance that is itself cleverly named “Desire.” “Would you like to sample desire?” is Ruth’s futile chorus to disinterested passersby, and her failure to move product becomes her failure as an object of desire.

More than anything else I’ve ever read, Zambreno’s prose captures, in a visceral way, how retail invades the bodies and psyches of its workers. And of course retail is not just retail. Retail is capitalism, patriarchy, misogyny, adultism, stigmatization of mental illness, and perhaps most importantly, lest I make this to macro and silence her yet again, retail is the context in which we as readers encounter a particular type of abject girl subject, in which we encounter Ruth. As an artist, Kate Zambreno is profoundly non-complacent, and this is the book for all of us ready to confront our own complacency.  This is a vital book, a necessary book, a book I will long treasure.

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  1. Jordan Blum said on 01/08/12 at 1:03 pm Reply

    Excellent piece, and I agree about retail. Having been a retail salesman for almost 10 years, I know firsthand how retail invades and insults both worker and customer. I wonder, though, if you think that this book will appeal to any reader (or is it aimed at a target audience)? Most writers (…I think haha) say that any book can reach any reader if he/she empathizes enough.


  2. Dawn. said on 01/09/12 at 11:03 pm Reply

    Awesome post, Tim.

    One of these is to write into, rather than counter to abjection, objectification, and stigma.

    Love this especially. Very challenging prospect. Makes me even more excited to read Green Girl.


  3. Dawn. said on 01/09/12 at 11:10 pm Reply

    Also, totally feeling this exploration of retail as an all-consuming position/environment. I worked in Forever XXI and then this other more upscale women’s clothing store when I was 18 and 20. So much pretty glossy vacancy.


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