This Body is Not My Own
A conversation with Jessi Jezewska Stevens about her debut novel, "The Exhibition of Persephone Q."
Percy Q, the titular character of Jessi Jezewska Stevens' debut novel, walks through New York in the months following 9/11 unable to recognize her own body. A recently married somnambulist, Percy one day comes across a mysterious exhibition catalog featuring a photograph of what she soon believes to be of her own naked body. The novel unfolds into a mystery that never really gets solved. It doesn't really matter though. Instead of solving the novel's mystery, Jezewska Stevens decides to answer, or at least inch towards answering a series of questions: Who am I, who have I been, and who will I be? The Exhibition of Persephone Q is a coming of age novel told through a crisis setting. The novel takes place twenty years ago, but is equally relevant to the kind of political landscape that we live in today.
Jezewska Stevens started writing this book in January 2016 in her mid 20s, partially in response to the election of Donald Trump. As a result, the book takes on some of the ideas that penetrated our national consciousness four years ago. The Exhibition of Persephone Q explores the notion of American identity, as well as the nascence of a uniquely American surveillance state. Percy's husband works on an early advertising algorithm, and so much of this book revolves around Percy surveilling her own body as she enters motherhood, as well as the experience of strangers surveilling her alleged body in the mysterious photo exhibition. Over the phone, GARAGE talked to Jezewska Stevens about the idea of de-personalization and de-familizaration of the body as well as one's political surrounding, and more.
So much of your book seems to fall into this idea of recognizing the self, and not recognizing the self. Why were you interested in pursuing this question of how our perceptions of ourselves sort of change over time?
I think my answer to that is twofold. On the one hand, I started writing this when I was about 26. To the extent that there is a bit of a coming of age arc to the novel, I think that that question of who am I and who could I be and who have I been, and reckoning with the idea that the answers to those questions might be less stable or less fated than you would have liked can be part of those coming of age narratives. But also, I started writing this in the lea- up to the 2016 election, when it seemed that very much on a national level, that question of who we are, and possibly what is this country? Those questions felt incredibly charged, and the answers to them especially unstable in that moment.
So I think as I was working on the book, I was kind of toggling back and forth between the way that those questions matter to us on an individual level, and then also on a national level. I guess it now seems like a bit of an outsized ambition, but trying to filter maybe something of national concern through a more individual story.
It’s interesting that you mentioned that this book is sort of your response to what was happening in 2016 because it takes place in November of 2001. How did you arrive at the decision to set the book in that really charged point in time?
I was watching some of those conversations unfold, I did feel that somehow certain debates over that question of who are we, what is this nation, seemed to be part of a certain cycle of reckoning that is bookended a little bit by 9/11 and 2016 to me. I was wondering if the kind of confusion and paranoia that I had detected in 2016 could actually be foregrounded and captured by setting the book in just after 9/11. So I arrived at that setting because I thought that it spoke to and kind of foregrounded a contemporary mood.
Do you see any parallels between sort of the ideas that you were having four years ago with what's going on right now with Coronavirus?
A friend was joking with me that I've really managed to string out this book along a series of disasters. I set my first novel 9/11, I wrote it during the 2016 election, and then published it during a pandemic. I think maybe one thing that underlies a lot of the more troubling debates around identity in this country is the idea of safety. When people start to feel threatened, and when people start to feel paranoid, and when things start to feel unfamiliar, and daily life is disrupted, then I think that we see some of the fault lines that this country has around questions of who is American and what kinds of narratives garner authority and public debate? I think that we have unfortunately seen some of that now. I think that that's something that Percy being newly married, on the cusp of motherhood, her idea of entering relations of care for others. There's nothing like a pandemic to remind us of the extent to which we really are just basically responsible for one another in a way that is maybe neglected in this country.
Percy is grappling with becoming a mother, while also trying to figure out if she is becoming her mother. What was it like to like to write about the body in terms of this sort of multilayered experience with motherhood?
I think that that idea grates against Percy's attitude that she can invent herself as she wishes kind of at any moment. I think that some of these transitions really relate back to that question of on the individual level of "who am I," and that maybe there's as much as there is to be gained in a new self through these transitions of marriage and motherhood. I was also interested in the extent to which someone was reckoning with a loss of self in those transitions as well. Even to the extent that those questions for a woman like Percy are very much related to bodily experiences. Certainly motherhood is a very physical experience, a physical transition. When Percy first encounters these pictures, she is wondering whether she can recognize herself, but on the most basic level, her first response is whether she can recognize her own body. Right? There's something in that she recognizes the room even before she recognizes herself. I wonder if, at least in a woman's experience, if there are questions of identity or moments of those transitions that also relate to feeling estranged at times from your own body.
Percy is often, as you were saying earlier, de-familiarized with her own body and finding herself in situations where she doesn't recognize herself, but then there's this incredibly lucid moment in the book where she talks at her fiance for pages and pages. I'd love to hear what your thinking was in including a monologue like that.
I wanted the book to have different textures and different stylistic textures. I was attracted to the formal challenge of that. And this section that you're talking about, the sort of second part of the book, is technically told orally. I think it has a bit of a stylistic shift from the first and third parts of the book. I think this can be an unsettling book in many ways. I think it has a kind of darkness to it. But I also like to think it has some comedy. And I wanted to build in different styles in books. And I was also attracted to the kind of structural joke of someone saying, "Look, just give me five minutes." And then going on for ages instead. And I thought there was something lighthearted or amusing and also very much in character for Percy. I think the most important kind of structural reasons behind that choice come down to Percy being someone who is not very in touch with her past, is not thinking about herself, especially historically, for a large part of the book. In this second section, we get her origin story. I was thinking of that as another play on the idea of the exhibition. On the one hand, Percy appears in these photographs. But then her narrating her own past, her kind of narration of who that woman in the photograph is, is maybe a different way of manifesting a kind of exhibition in the book. I was interested in how we better understand her, especially towards at the very end if we spend the greater portion of the book with Percy not knowing much about her past, then suddenly get in this story and having more of a synthesis of understanding better who she is, how she's responded to the events in the novel by the end.
Your book grapples with this idea of surveillance, between what Misha is doing his research on and the experience Percy has of people looking at her alleged body in the gallery. I wanted to ask you about the notion of surveillance both as a clearly of a moment sort of thing in response to 2016, what was happening historically at that time, and through experiences of being a woman and having a body.
Percy's husband, Misha, is working on early instant advertising algorithms, which, as we know, are going to turn into the kind of algorithms that shape our experience online and even become another kind of a third way of determining that question of "who am I," right? If there is the sort of your own narrative of who you are, other's narratives of who you are, then there's also the kind of algorithm's version of who you are. I was interested in our contemporary moment when we understand that we are always surveilled to some extent, just in the way that when you meet someone else's narrative of who you are, you can try on that perspective. What does it mean to approach that question of "who am I" from the perspective of the algorithm that is surveilling you, or the kind of more abstract viewpoint of a surveillance apparatus? I think that's another way that questions of who has the authority to answer certain questions about yourself kind of works its way into the novel.
The whole book is sort of set around this mysterious photo exhibition. What is attractive to you about telling a story through the medium of photography?
I was thinking as I was writing the book, if I have this character who is somewhat in denial about the major transitions in her life, and is in some ways avoiding confronting a past or confronting questions of her own selfhood, what kind of event would really motivate her to action? This exhibition was my answer to that question. I think I was attracted to the way that a photograph literalizes in a sense, those questions of self-recognition or de-familiarization. If you see a picture of yourself and you do not recognize it, it's such a concrete experience of feeling estranged from the person that you were in moments of transition, in moments of disruption; that would also echo the kind of moment in which the book is set, right after a national disaster. I think that there was something about the way that encountering the photograph made those questions very literal that was attractive to me. Then also the way in which we often approach photos a straight, factual documentations of an experience. Much of the book is also revolving around people seeing very different things in something that should be uncontroversial. I think that also speaks to some things that were very much of the foreground in 2016 of things that would seem factual are actually very much up for debate. Different versions of the truth are in conflict.