Written by Emily Ballaine
There are certain questions that haunt those who choose to make art for a living. Is this good? Is this worth it? Some buckle under the debilitating self-doubt these voices in the back of one’s head inevitably induce, while others learn to quiet the voices, to embrace the voices, to channel the voices, to say fuck off to the voices. Amina Cain belongs in the latter category. In her latest collection, Creature, Cain channels the anxieties and fears so many writers face—let’s be honest all writers—into stories that bristle on the page, desperate to burst out of such archaic containments as ink and paper.
Cain writes about the artistic process in a way that will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to create something out of nothing. The story “I Will Force This” begins:
“Lately I’ve been having a hard time knowing what’s good. I don’t even know how to write. Maybe I am only a reader. I try to force things, force stories. I have to work on a story for many, many months before it makes sense.”
The narrator of the story is commissioned to copy a piece of writing onto the wall of an art gallery and suddenly finds herself transformed into an other “she.” The act of performance works doubly as a form of escape and voyeurism; if it is someone else doing the work one has the luxury to sit back and watch, to judge from a safe distance. It is only when it comes time for the narrator to write about the experience, to make art in her own skin, that she is shoved back into the world of self-doubt.
Cain, however, does not limit herself or her stories by only focusing on artistic uncertainty, but also tackles questions of identity and personhood in a way that is at once experimental and accessible. In the story “Queen” the narrator slips effortlessly between describing the everyday doldrums of life and asking the darker questions that can eat away at us:
“Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”
It is the type of line that knocks the wind out of you. “Is this what it means to be a person?” This is the question everyone has asked him or herself at one point. This is the question all art strives to answer. What impresses me about Cain’s writing is her ability to say so much in such small and quiet spaces. Her stories are very short, some only two – three pages, and yet she writes in a way that feels so expansive and uncontainable. They are the type of stories that would collapse in on themselves if allowed to continue for longer, and that, I think, is what gives them so much power. In a world of endless opportunities to share our every unfiltered thought it is refreshing to see someone doing more with less. And doing it well.