Sheila Heti on Expanding Our Notions of Mourning
In Conversation with Jordan Kisner on the Thresholds Podcast
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the essay collection Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Sheila Heti joins Jordan to talk about grief, god, the shape of her novel Pure Colour, and what it means to be rooting for the snail.
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From the episode:
Jordan Kisner: I want to come back around to the first thing that we were talking about, which is mourning. I’m curious to know if mourning shows up elsewhere in your creative process, sort of more generally. If you feel like there’s a connection between mourning and art for you, aside from this experience that you had with your father.
Sheila Heti: Well, I have a very bad memory, and I feel like mourning maybe requires memory, you know? You think back on times and they’re lost to you, and you have a feeling of mourning them. They’re dead, they’re gone. I don’t look back very much. I’m not very nostalgic. So I don’t think that mourning is a very prevalent emotion for me in my life or in my work. And I don’t even think in this case with my father—that word I think is just the only word we have.
The word mourning also feels inappropriate for that literal time of mourning that I was in for my father, because all the associations with that word were not how I was feeling. I don’t experience a lot of depression; I can get very anxious, I can get very lots of different things, but that depressive feeling I associate with mourning and grief, that’s not something that comes easily to me.
Jordan Kisner: Can I ask what it did feel like? What words might have been better to describe?
Sheila Heti: Well, that’s the whole book. I mean, I was trying to put the feelings in.
Jordan Kisner: Yeah, I really liked how all of this sorrow in the book was more for the world, or more expressed around the tragedy of living in the first draft, even though they’re sort of beauty in that also. And the emotions that Mira had around her father’s death were so much more complicated, so much more full of joy, so much more full of confusion or rest. I’ve never read writing about grief quite like that.
Sheila Heti: Yeah, I think that’s why I wanted to write it, because I hadn’t experienced the grief that I had in my body. I hadn’t read anything that came close to what my experience of it was. And I thought, well, those are the kind of things you want to put in the world, when your experience of something contrasts with all the representations we’ve seen of it. Because you think, well, other people must also have these contrasting experiences, and if you don’t see them written down, you don’t take them seriously or you don’t believe them or you don’t know how to understand them. I’m not sure why so many of the books that I read about grief and mourning just have that particular tone or that particular note.
Sheila Heti is the author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, including Motherhood and How Should a Person Be?, which New York magazine deemed one of the “New Classics of the 21st century.” She was named one of “the New Vanguard” by the New York Times book critics, who, along with a dozen other magazines and newspapers, chose Motherhood as a Best Book of 2018. Her novels have been translated into twenty-four languages. She is the former Interviews Editor of The Believer magazine. She lives in Toronto.