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Negative Capabilities: ISABEL FONSECA (Unabridged)

When you speak with Fonseca that same conviction, frankness and self-deprecating humor is evident. You hear the best of the book in her talking voice. A reflection on the moment she bought pot as a 12 year old in Washington Square rings out with this. Jean recalls herself as a teenage adventurer, dressed in a second-hand suit, bohemian style. She has frequented Washington Square before and knows well its coded sales cries of “Sense sense sense” for sensimilla marihuana. The pot-dealer Jean usually speaks with and somewhat romanticizes unexpectedly comes on to her. In the character of Jean, Fonseca writes “a part of her was immensely flattered. She’d also been devastated. That was, just possibly, the beginning of her not wanting to be taken for a body, Jean thought. She’d wanted to be taken for a mind — almost any kind would do, even a clown or a freak in a dead man’s suit but please, let it be something for my head: sense, sense, sense.”

In the course of an hour’s conversation, Fonseca puts herself to the test of her own thinking repeatedly, and seems to find herself wanting more as she digs in deeper than you might ever expect. “Is the book any good?” she asks herself as much as me; “Does the ending work?” and so on. “I actually think it takes years to see what is good and not good about a book you’ve written,” she says, “and it’s painful to see the things that you thought would do.” Fonseca refers to Keats’ notion of “negative capability” and the feeling that “you need to battle through unspeakable self-doubt if a book is to be worth anything.”

Over the phone there’s that strange, floating sense you have not so much entered her home as her headspace: an inner world so thoughtful and honest it can leave you feeling cowardly by comparison. “There’s a long period of merger in the beginning of any relationship,” Fonseca admits, when looking at the themes behind Attachment and her own marriage. “Then with children you sense you have to keep a united front. My daughters are 9 and 11 now. Old enough to get your space back a little. You see that you still have a long way to go — I hope! That I’m only half way… But you also ask ‘Is that it?’ Not as a matter of complaint, more as a matter of stupefaction.” Fonseca almost laughs. “Here I am, I’ve made babies, but who am I now that I am on my own again?”

Attachment and Bury Me Standing both resound with a quest for home. “Whenever you write it is to investigate some anxiety. Fiction is more about scratching about in a silent anxiety. And your sense of identity often relates to what home means. I didn’t set out to do that. But I see now there’s a lot of homesickness in the story [of Attachment]. Maybe it’s a cliché of fiction that the past is another country. But this nostalgia for the time before is so often identified with place as much as time.”

“It’s true that like the character [of Jean] I’ve been uprooted a lot. But I don’t feel that,” Fonseca says, picking at the emotions of her life history as something rather different to the details themselves. “And now I have perpetrated it with my children. And I do see a lot of anxiety with them, and I’m not sure it’s been a good thing. But I’m not sure it’s solvable by staying home either. I certainly wanted to go [to Uruguay with them]. My father had died not long before and I felt the need to visit Uruguay. And there was a window of opportunity before [high] school became important. It seemed to me I was doing it for them, but I wasn’t really.”

“I still go to New York about four times a year for various reasons,” she continues. “One of the real, but less legitimate reasons I do it is you can imagine life before it happened to you, when things could have gone 19 different ways. I think that’s why I’m lucky to be a writer. Because you can think about and write about such things, just to see how you feel.”


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