How does one write of a self that is fundamentally displaced? Are our bodies really our own? Who on Earth understands what we are here for? What does it mean to be a body of movement and slippery definitions in a world that runs on categorization, separation, and the exhausting desire to know? What can we learn from the gestures of fish, from water, if we dare to listen and invite them to baptize us?
Lars Horn poses these questions and more in Voice of the Fish, a hypnotizing, innovative, and lyrical examination of art, language, aquatic history, illness, theology, and the transmasculine body. The New York Times calls it “a baptismal overflowing narrative that reveals the limitlessness of being.”
Horn is a writer and translator working in literary and experimental non-fiction. Their first book, Voice of the Fish: A Lyric Essay, won the 2020 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, the 2023 Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, and was named an honor book for the 2023 Stonewall Israel Fishman Nonfiction Book Award as well as an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce Selection. The recipient of the Tin House Without Borders Residency and fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Horn’s writing has appeared in Granta, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Kenyon Review, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. Initially specialising in Phenomenology and Visual Arts scholarship, they hold MAs from the University of Edinburgh, the École normale supérieure, Paris, and Concordia University, Montreal. As of July 2023, they will teach at Columbia University. They live in New York with their wife, the writer Jaquira Díaz.
Horn is currently working on their next book – an experimental lyric essay that explores faith, art, and transmasculinity across different times, places, and people.
Cameron Finch (CF): In the beginning of Voice of the Fish, you write, “I experience my body as interiority that radiates. Mirrors unnerve me. I don’t know my weight. I don’t tend to look at myself. I like gestures. Words come least naturally to me—I tend to think in images, textures.” This has been my experience with my own queerness, too—I often find difficulty articulating and translating my body’s physical and emotional experience into the rigid landscape of the alphabet so others can attempt understanding and connection, even though words are the tools I have to work with. Visual art, dance, movement; these modes of expression help to unspool me. How did you persevere with the written language despite this fraught relationship with words and go on to write such an astounding work of literature?
In Voice of the Fish, I talk of bodies surrounded by beasts, placing the animal alongside or even within the human.
Lars Horn (LH): Initially, the switch from visual arts to written language arose from economic necessity. I left the UK for Canada and took up shift work to make rent. After groceries and utilities, I had no extra funds for materials or studio space. As an interim solution, I bought a notepad and pens, intending to write until I had enough money and time to return to sculptural work. But the portability and affordability of writing meant that I kept it up—especially since I moved six times or so in two years. Although wording bodily experience runs counter to language in many ways—why word that which is, that which exists strangely, defiantly off the page—writing also allows for vast possibilities when it comes to framing the body. In Voice of the Fish, I talk of bodies surrounded by beasts, placing the animal alongside or even within the human. To do the same in the visual arts—sculpture, painting, photography, performance, or cinema—raises significant pragmatic constraints. Whereas I wrote with relative ease of my mother photographing me in a bath of dead squid, my mother expended considerable time, money, and physical effort to complete the project. Similarly, writing circumvents the constraints of the physical body, opening it into the scope of the mythical or magical: anemones can pulse in the gut, eels writhe up a throat. Admittedly, language carries a certain rigidity—a socio-cultural, political sediment, and its own somewhat stilted existence as written translation for lived experience. But my background in the visual arts enabled me to appreciate the bodily iterations language can generate, how it holds vast potential for redefining the ways a body might articulate.
CF: Did you conceive the book from a single image, word, sound, sensation, or memory? From where did you build Voice of the Fish up and out from? What was its first drop of water?
LH: Voice of the Fish built upon “With the Moths’ Eyes”—an essay in prose poems in which the human and animal collapse. This essay, in turn, took its cue from medicinal texts, research papers, and a number of artworks and film stills: Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Mona Hatoum’s Corps étranger, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, Sarah Lucas’ “Got a Salmon On #3,” Julian Simmons’ “Sarah Lucas with Dove,” Krzysztof Kieślowski’s documentary Szpital/ Hospital, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo/ Mirror and Stalker. Like “With the Moths’ Eyes,” Voice of the Fish was written from an archival and curatorial gesture as opposed to a single image. A gathering of disparate information—ancient, contemporary; visual, written; scientific, artistic—that could reformulate in the gesture of a body, of a life lived. There is, perhaps, something more archaeological than constructive in how the book formulated: a cataloguing and arrangement of sources on the one hand and an excavation of memory on the other.
CF: There are three sections of the book that braid together in a structured rhythm: the personal essays, the threaded essay on aquariums and transmaculinity, and the aquatic-inspired vignettes. Each section contains its own aesthetic and design on the page. I see the book almost like a photograph, cut into tiny strands and reassembled into collage. You grew up with a photographer mother, and one of the most striking images you give us is the memory of modeling for her while submerged in a bathtub full of dead squid. Exposure, water bath, development, dark rooms, flashbulb moments. It’s all here in this book. Have you thought of your work as a kind of photography, too? In her praise for your work, Maaza Mengiste describes Voice of the Fish as “that rare work that defies easy categorization.” How did the word ‘lyric essay’ become a term used to encompass what the entire book is and can be?
All literary forms can prove capacious, but the longer I wrote Voice of the Fish, the more “lyric essay” encompassed the work in a way other genre descriptions could not.
LH: I enjoy when language cleaves from the narrative concerns of plot, character, or continuity, when language, instead, deviates to visual or gestural logic. Poetry often works in associative, imagistic, or tactile registers, and I read it frequently for that reason. As a nonfiction writer, I am interested in putting the traditional concerns of nonfiction—often coded as white, cis-het, and Eurocentric—under tension: How might the essay be radically upended if it is to progress in rich and meaningful ways? This desire, of course, is tempered by the demands of the work itself. “My Mother Photographs Me in a Bath of Dead Squid” and “With the Moths’ Eyes” embraced photographic movement, the essays working across economic, imagistic units. But “Under the Fishes” and “The Georgian Military Road” demanded a more sinuous, cinematic, or sculptural approach, their sentences, and paragraphs elongating into slower, syntax-laden pace. In this way, I hoped Voice of the Fish might be photographic but also carry a certain physicality or movement associated with other visual arts. It was precisely this formal range that led me to describe Voice of the Fish as “lyric essay.” All literary forms can prove capacious, but the longer I wrote Voice of the Fish, the more “lyric essay” encompassed the work in a way other genre descriptions could not. It was not a premeditated choice but a decision that emerged organically as the project was completed.
CF: Travel also plays a role in this book; as a mechanism for reinventing, returning, disorienting, subverting, rearranging, disrupting, hiding, broadcasting the self and its possibilities. In the book, we follow you through Paris, London, Georgia, and Russia as you reckon with the different external perceptions of your body as you move from state to state. I’m thinking about the body’s movement across the planet and the liminality between borders, cultures, identities, and languages. You are also a translator by trade. Can you speak about how various forms of translation— linguistically, bodily, and metaphysically—figure into your writing, particularly Voice of the Fish?
LH: In a concrete sense, translation equipped me with an appreciation of and attention to the graininess of language, its articulation at the level of the word or line. I have a distinct sense of physicality when writing, how one word or phrase can shift the texture, direction, or meaning of a line. Translation is less an act of transposing one thing into another than an act of approximate creation. And not just linguistically. We are constantly engaged in acts of “translation” when crossing differences of era, culture, race, gender, or sexuality—to name but a few. Often these acts of translation are not even voluntary: they emerge from context and are enacted upon a body where dominant power structures attribute certain forms—often damaging forms—of legibility to marginalised bodies.
Bodies are forced to render themselves legible, to translate themselves.
By the same token, marginalised bodies must strive to modulate those forms of legibility within the dominant power structures of whiteness, ableism, cis-heteronormativity, and misogyny. Bodies are forced to render themselves legible, to translate themselves. Although this is likely a fundamental aspect of humanity regardless of demographic—we must each translate ourselves to another, even ourselves at times—these acts of translation, rendering oneself “legible,” are compounded when one is marginalised. To have to translate oneself so as to be meaningful within a power system that actively seeks to erase, undermine or harm you is violent in itself. And so, again, we return to approximate creation—a version of oneself, at best, offered to a loving other and, at worst, formulated to elicit minor change within an oppressive and dominant culture. But the generative aspect of translation as approximate creation does uplift me. The possibility of renewal, genesis even, in these moments of handing oneself to another. Perhaps, this is where writing really intersects with translation—an approximate but generative creation.
CF: In your essay, “Ink,” you highlight the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s unfinished work The Visible and the Invisible: “Merleau-Ponty remarks upon the need for a new language of the body, one that doesn’t follow divisions of mind-body or body-world. Something elemental, spatial. A language of pivots, of movement.” This is revealed after a keen history of tattoos, ink, and notions of permanence and the body as parchment.
Could you discuss the tattooed body and its role in Voice of the Fish? I’m fascinated by the complex relationship of being written on with language that may or may not be legible or available for viewing; the private and the public tattoo, the consumed and the unreadable tattoo. As someone marked not by tattoos but by scars – another kind of writing on the body – I’d love to hear more about what led you to research the visible and invisible aspects of tattoos.
LH: After losing the ability to read and write for several months, I tattooed my body with text—text that, only months earlier, I had known intimately yet now struggled to read. At the time, I wasn’t sure whether my reading and writing abilities would ever return with the same aptitude. It would take years before writing and reading once more came with a certain fluency—though neither has regained the character or ease of before. In those months, I acted out of instinct. Looking back, I suppose some of that gesture was an attempt not to recollect a former self but to enshrine it—fossilised—within a changed body. One that would have to navigate the world differently. The text—once able to convey meaning—now existed materially: a script, a movement, the arc of muscle or bone. I have always been most at home with physicality. I think in images, sensations, and gestures. Language has always appeared somewhat distant, chimeric. But this loss of language threw my tendency to think intuitively, to sense or follow an impulse, into sharp relief. I simply wanted to inscribe my body, so I did. The action brought rest, some kind of easing to the chest. Researching the tattooed body for Voice of the Fish was similarly spontaneous—an impulse I followed alongside my interest in Zhang Huan’s visceral performance work.
From bodily modification to the more intangible ways society, history, and culture mark and model an individual, the tattooed body intersects, to some degree, with transness.
The tattooed body acts as a metaphor for corporeal inscription. From bodily modification to the more intangible ways society, history, and culture mark and model an individual, the tattooed body intersects, to some degree, with transness. In this sense, the tattooed body plays into the wider concerns of Voice of the Fish: how to understand a body in relation to the time, place, and people that have shaped it? How to understand a body whose truth problematises its socio-cultural shaping? Transmasculine, my gender often goes unread by others or is misread.
Conversely, I struggle to recognise my body as my own—it still shocks me to catch sight of myself, a body that does not readily accord with the truths of who I know myself to be. In both instances, there is an interplay of visibility. Visible, invisible, caught between enactment and erasure, the transmasculine body must actualise itself, enact itself into existence—rites not so far removed from the desire to embody one’s past within the shifting of a self, not so far, in the end, from a desire to tattoo, to write oneself into being.
CF: I was breathless while reading “With the Moths’ Eyes” as we experience the body’s intense mysteries, exemplified by the shoulder injury that shattered and silenced you for six months in 2014. This essay is laid out differently than other sections of the book, almost like a bridge or cadenza. We read mostly white space. Situated on these white pages, quotes punctuate the space like borderless index cards, ranging from masters of science to Scriptures. Folklore, a timetable, the second person “you” slips in and out. Could you please walk us through your process of constructing this remarkable essay? What is something about this section that only Lars Horn would know?
LH: “With the Moths’ Eyes” originated from months spent in the company of images. Artworks and film stills pasted across my bedroom walls. Images I woke up to, fell asleep with—their strangeness momentarily lingering across my eyes in the darkness. Only after months of living alongside their bodies and landscapes, only after these images had transformed—the outstretched dead dove in Lucas’ hands now winged heartbeat, Tarkovsky’s German shepherd now wandering through dreams—did I start writing the sequences they inspired. I did this at four or five in the morning, the midwinter sun not yet risen. Concurrently, I researched ancient medical texts in which bodies appeared more to the contours of faith or astrology, to mythical geography than to anatomy. Interestingly, you picked up on index cards to describe the structure of the essay. I used index cards to collect quotations and pertinent research, laying them alongside the prose poems until I hit upon a viable arrangement for the essay as a whole.
As for a detail only I might know: I initially wrote “With the Moths’ Eyes” for a second-person prose-poem novella but eventually used the piece to begin Voice of the Fish.
CF: Do you collage in your every day? I imagine layers and layers of Saint Lucia iconography and other martyrs’ likenesses populating your space. What fascinates you about the lives of religious figures? Do they bring you company? So many find their way through the halls of Voice of the Fish. You have mentioned elsewhere that you are drawn to faith and its language of the unknowable.
Like gods, ancient beasts—their bodies morph, petrify, suddenly eclipse.
LH: Occasionally, I console myself with the Susan Sontag quotation: “Never worry about being obsessive. I like obsessive people. Obsessive people make great art.” While I don’t collage, I do compile archives of images, anecdotes, facts, or trivia that catch my attention, even if I do not, at the time, understand how the item may be of use. This I do with compulsion. Gmail drafts, Word docs, notebooks, cards, dozens of open internet tabs—these “findings” sprawl across media and filing systems. I might have them for years before they reveal their pertinence to my work. And, yes, saints—religious iconography generally—feature heavily in my work. Faith or religion embodies this desire to speak the ineffable, to talk into the voids of why are we here, how to live, and how to prepare for death. But saints and martyrs hold a particular significance for me in how their bodies regularly defy physical norms. From Santa Lucia’s restored sight to Saint Wilgefortis’ androgenous crucifixion—whose representation is commonly mistaken for that of Christ—from Saint Agatha’s excised breasts carried on a platter to Saint Cecilia’s incorrupt corpse, the saints radically redefine embodiment. They exist as distinctly queer. Like gods, ancient beasts—their bodies morph, petrify, suddenly eclipse.
CF: Thank you again for sharing with us at Lambda Literary. Before we go, could you celebrate some LGBTQ and experimental nonfiction writers who have influenced your work and life? Who do you wish more people were reading?
LH: Robin Coste Lewis’ To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness has kept me returning to its pages for how she reframes scientific and mythological origin stories into narratives of blackness, and for how she marries word to image. I also admire Natalie Diaz’s work and think that Postcolonial Love Poem can be read in many ways as experimental essay. I return to Jos Charles’ feeld for her keen insight, subtle humour, and linguistic dexterity. As for prose, Julián Delgado Lopera has an enviable mastery of humour and voice. His work could transport anyone anywhere and make them thankful to be there. I always enjoy T Fleischmann’s Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through for their intricate thinking around art. Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay Bar: Why We Went Out showcases a dazzling quality and depth of research, and David Wojnarowicz’s diaries In the Shadow of the American Dream consistently move me in their sensitivity and openness to the world.