In this interview, Columbia MFA graduate Caroline Bodian talks with Abbigail N. Rosewood about her debut, If I Had Two Lives. The novel is grounded in certain realities, realities of immigration and complex, yet enduring, female friendships, of loss and motherhood. Take a closer look and you’ll find a funhouse of mirrors, intense echoes, shifting parts, and blurred boundaries.
It’s the kind of book that carries you through a current of unforgettable images and relationships, while urging you to pause and think.
Sitting on the steps of Union Square on a balmy afternoon, Abbigail, whose serene and thoughtful manner is often interlaced with playful humor—joked about sporadically interjecting ‘[laughs]’ into this interview— talked about always striving for the sublime, myth-making in female friendships, migrant solitude, and prioritizing emotional landscape in If I Had Two Lives. … [Laughs]
As someone who formally studied philosophy—I remember you said it was one of your college majors—how did your knowledge of philosophical concepts or ideas inform your writing of the book? Does it inform your writing in general?
I think to say, “I studied philosophy,” is just a way of signifying I am curious about life. My questions are numerous and relentless: What is the meaning of evil? Is there such a thing as objective beauty? Why do some people need the idea of God and others reject it completely? Is justice possible given a person’s genetic predisposition to disorders such as psychopathy? Do we have free will? Are artificially intelligent “machines” the evolved human? What is the future of humanity then?
All philosophical questions lead to discussions which are riddled with dilemmas, contradictions, and tend to be inconclusive. Writing fiction is my way of crafting situations, people, lives that are morally ambiguous, nuanced, and intentionally evasive of any single conclusion. In that sense, my philosophical inquiries are peppered throughout the narrative.
More specifically, in my writing I will always strive for what is sublime: the philosophical notion of grandeur and awe so total that it annihilates everything else. The sublime is beyond mere beauty—it inspires darkness, fear, horror, but ultimately pleasure. It is tremendously gratifying to be held in aesthetic arrest, to surrender.
Speaking of the sublime inspiring horror…You have a knack for meshing the beautiful with the grotesque, the good with the bad. There’s even a line in your book that speaks to this idea: “In all beauty there is ugliness and the opposite.” What effect do you think this contrast has on the reader?
Thank you! I am completely obsessed with pairs of opposites: good and evil, beauty and ugliness, light and dark. I’m so pleased that you noticed this in my work. I like to think it is an invitation for the readers to enter a game of light and shadow, to cast monstrous images on the wall, play at being both and neither, puppet and puppet master. To be disgusted and delighted—this is what I hope for the reader.
Addressing the narrator, one of the characters explains that many Americans view Vietnam through the lens of the Vietnam War. From the perspective of Americans, he says, “Vietnam…is a war, not a country. Anything besides is irrelevant.” What kind of perceptions of Vietnam did you encounter when you first moved to the U.S., and how do you feel storytelling can shift some of the cultural narrow-mindedness that might perpetuate stereotypes?
As a Vietnamese immigrant, I’ve always been hyper-aware of the dominant narrative, an important narrative, but ultimately it cannot and must not be the only one. When someone learns that I’m Vietnamese, the next comment would be their view of the Vietnam War, which the name alone already insinuates who had authored history. When I first started writing in the U.S., I felt incredibly inhibited. When I wrote stories set in Vietnam that had nothing to do with war, I was either met with confusion or I was directly told that I must include something about the war. While working on my novel, I received the dangerous advice that I should set it in a different country if I really wanted to be free of this historical weight. It seems a basic truth: Vietnamese lives are colorful, unpredictable, varied, and, yes, sublime too, but it is a battle I feel called to prove and will continue to do so. I resist stereotypes by simply writing what I want. I don’t set out to challenge anyone’s assumptions, but often that is the byproduct of art and I welcome it.
Many of your characters, including your narrator, remain nameless, a decision I appreciated mainly because it reinforces the fluidity of the characters whose minds and bodies can feel shared or deliberately interchangeable…but enough about what I think…why did you decide to keep some of your central characters nameless?
I love the way you put that—interchangeability. America is a highly individualistic country so this might not be a very popular theory, but people adopt pets that share the same features as their previous ones all the time, so it makes sense that we also favor the humans who resemble someone else that we might have known and loved. For many of us, familiarity is a powerful guide on who to trust, what to eat, who to love, and unfairly who to hate as well.
As soon as something is named it loses ambiguity, which to me is a great loss. It feels honest that my central characters should not be easily pinned down or defined, especially the protagonist because she suffers profoundly from the psychic ruptures of being in-between. I myself would love to live namelessly or go by a name that is cleansed of all assumptions like Triangle or something unpronounceable like iLP78&R, but it is simply impractical. I would start to feel too pointy after a while. I suppose this might be one difference between life and fiction; the novel can afford some impracticalities in service of a higher truth.
Myth-making and storytelling play a major role in the friendships between your female characters, not only in childhood, but in adulthood as well. What purpose do you think this serves in their lives and what purpose might myth-making play in friendships in general?
Myth-making is a necessary ingredient in all relationships, especially if they are to have a chance at depth. In female friendships, myth is the original story the friends have co-created and co-birthed.
Can you give me an example of a story or myth friends might create?
The story might be that one friend is always the one to receive romantic attention as the other stands on the sideline. It is a story that requires both parties to perpetuate and reinforce. Outside of this particular friendship, the story could be completely false—the friend who is always standing alone might have multiple suitors herself. For the sake of the friendship and in honor of the myth, she will continue to play this role. The rupture of the myth usually accompanies the rupture of the friendship.
One of the most pervasive themes in your book is this idea of solitude as a migrant, or immigrant loneliness. “Solitude,” your narrator says, “is the result of cutting themselves free from the umbilical cord that connects them to the womb of their motherland.” Can you expand on this theme more?
It is impossible to be ripped off from your roots and not feel intensely isolated. Immigrant loneliness comes from being uprooted, psychically fractured, being in between languages, memories, cultures. Going back to where you were born after having lived elsewhere creates its own dissonance and pain. Never going back also involves denying parts of yourselves. You are not just between countries, but between truths as well. To continue with the plant analogy, some immigrants lean toward the roots, others toward the flowers, some rest in the stalk. This doubling of self can destroy the person. That is the cost as well as payment for experience, for having crossed boundaries.
Finally, to end on a more technical note, what did your writing process look like, and how did you go about incorporating the more political or factual elements? Was there a large amount of research involved in the process, or visits to some of the locations in the book?
I write in the morning, on coffee and on an empty stomach, usually up to five hours. I say “on coffee” because it is like a drug for me. I can probably attribute all my creative power to these magic beans. I don’t outline. My process is just one word after another while trying to surprise myself. If I’m not delighted, I don’t think the reader would be either. The downside to that is I have no idea what I’m doing until I have at least fifty pages. Every new project requires a new soundtrack. I would listen to the same song over and over again. It puts me in a trance-like, flow state. The rhythm of the music would be reflected in the rhythm of the sentences. I’m not sure what kind of a writer I would be without all these tools, so I definitely belong to my era…Laptop, music, coffee. I would love to try writing while being serviced by an A.I. robot, maybe being gently cradled in its lap.
I don’t usually do any research beyond a couple of google searches. I have a profound lack of interest in place, factually accurate details, geographical groundedness. Readers who are looking for specific descriptions of a place won’t find it in my writing. Perhaps this is why I love fiction. It is the one area where emotional landscape can be prioritized. An alley, a chair, a blade of grass—none of that matters if it hasn’t been experienced through characters. If a girl is angry at a blade of grass—that’s a location I’m interested in.
Abbigail was born in Vietnam. She received her MFA from Columbia University. If I Had Two Lives is her first novel.