Writer Leni Zumas is balanced on the corner of a tightly made bed in Room 400 of Portland, Oregon’s trendy Ace Hotel. With her fair skin, dark pooling eyes, and curtain of black waves, Zumas already looks at home in the Northwest. A young, lean photographer is shooting her with a Mamiya that he says belonged to his grandfather 60 years ago. Zumas seems to warm to the camera when she hears this, trusting its intentions.
There is a curl of strange lettering on the wall mural behind her.
“It looks Russian,” says Zumas, cranking her neck to look between shots.
We should be talking about Zumas’ language. A calvary of syntax and song that seems like something you know but you can’t quite put your finger on. From drumming with Brooklyn post-punk band S-S-S Spectres to exploring synesthesia and time slippage in her debut novel, The Listeners, Zumas is clearly not invested in the obvious.
“One thing the post-punk aesthetic shares with so-called experimental writing is willingness not to be agreeable. Not to gratify immediately.”
“If the melody is atonal,” she says. “The rhythm is jagged, a song might not please the average listener in the ways the average listener expects to be pleased. Same with fiction that is innovative, risk-taking, strange.”
Zumas’ fiction captures tactile experience much like vinyl captures sound: pure and full. Her words are never simply words. They are imprints of beat, tone, color, body, and texture. “I’m drawn to describe textures, sensations, temperatures, surfaces, grains. And words themselves have a tactile quality–a material consistency on the tongue, in the mouth,” she says.
The Listeners, slated for release in May, is a sparkling elliptical thing full of bloodworms and blown-out brains. It is also Zumas’ most rooted work, that is to say, with one foot in the realm of the “real.” Quinn, a 30-something ex-punk rocker with synesthesia struggles to come to terms with a failed music career, but is overtaken by her past and the accidental death of her sister 20 years earlier. The story seed grew not only from Zumas’ own mild form of synesthesia and punk-rock years, but a tragedy in her family. When her father was a boy, a stray bullet hit and killed his brother in his sleep. “I always wondered what it would be like to be the child that was left behind,” she says. “The one that didn’t get shot. It was playing with the concept that I began to develop The Listeners.”
It’s this willingness to look at discomfort that’s won Zumas fans like outsider icons Sam Lipsyte and Miranda July. Her characters are mostly on the edge of what’s happy and clean and shiny and settled. They are struggling in a way that’s not just human, but bodily. Through the tactile experiences of her characters, Zumas delves into reader orifices, seeming to ask the whole time what it is to be cloaked in this skin.
It would be too easy to sort her work into the “dark whimsy” pile, but it would also be lazy. Zumas is not only conjuring the haunted-doll beauty of Rydenesque girls. She’s taking those big-eyed dolls apart limb by limb and sewing them back together in a fantastic new arrangement of parts and pieces, a tentacle where a leg once hung, two eyes for teeth. It’s the music in her work that keeps it from being morbid.
Two boys strugged in, cold-faced sparks, their garb a tattered skin on spitefully thin limbs.
Drool flecks the splits in her lips, a girl’s drool, saliva of a sparkle and clarity that means she’s not acquainted with the cloudier waters of wanting.
I worry that institutional living is infecting him. With non sequiturs.
“My work is all about compression. I’m obsessed with sentence. I’m more interested in character and tone than plot,” she says, citing inspiration in works by Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Rainer Marie Rilke, Wallace Stevens, and the short stories of Franz Kafka.
“I write the way that I can write,” she says. “Though I am inspired by a lot of modernist writers who began to play with time and interiority, it really comes down to what’s in your artistic DNA.”
Zumas’ DNA is laced with text. She grew up in Washington D.C., the middle child of three in a political, literary family. Her mother is novelist Kate Blackwell and her father, a private practice lawyer and former Ralph Nader speechwriter. “My mom was a huge reader. We were always talking about books,” she says. “It makes all the difference to have people supporting you. Who aren’t telling you your whole life to ‘get a real job.'” She moved to Portland last August with her partner, Italian animator and illustrator Luca Dipierro.
“It’s huge to have someone that understands the creative process,” says Zumas of her partnership with Dipierro. “Gets why you’re in a bad mood or you can’t talk right then.”
Dipierro was a fan first. He came across Farewell Navigator while booking author events at Word, a Greenpoint bookstore, and invited her to read at the store. “If only the book hadn’t been as great,” he jokes, “Or her picture on the back so good, then who knows?” The couple is collaborating on an illustrated novel called Until I Find It, their sensibilities as writer and illustrator easily aligned, concerned as they both with texture, embodiment and perhaps most importantly, creation through displacement.
“A reader might want a story to move forward chronologically, or a character to have a clear motivation, or a sentence to obey normative syntax and grammar,” says Zumas, “but these desires will not be met.”