BY Kate Zambreno in Books , Opinion | 04 JUL 23

The Books That Influence Kate Zambreno

Ahead of the release of her new memoir, The Light Room, the author shares a list of the literary works that have inspired her

BY Kate Zambreno in Books , Opinion | 04 JUL 23

To celebrate the release of The Light Room (2023) this week, novelist and critic Kate Zambreno shares a reading list for frieze, consisting of works that have left a lasting impression on her practice and continue to influence her approach to the art of writing.

As I’m writing this, all of my books are in boxes, as I have just moved apartments in Brooklyn, for the first time in a decade. I feel stymied by this literary experiment. How can I write about books that have been so formative to my recent writing life, if they aren’t stacked together, in a pile, in front of me? But the truth is these are works that I’ve read over and over – works I teach – so much so that I’ve internalized their forms. I’ve swallowed my library. I often put my reading in my writing – there is an erotics to it – what clings, what remains, what can I hold dear, amidst alienation and overwork, in periods of blankness?

The Light Room, 2023
Kate Zambreno, The Light Room, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Penguin Random House

Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light, trans. Geraldine Harcourt (2019, Picador)

Although I didn’t study literature in college (I was a journalism student – more practical, my parents insisted), I did take a course entitled ‘Japanese Women Writers’. I remember reading Tsushima’s stories in the red and white bulls-eye cover of The Shooting Gallery (1988). I read those stories again, along with her 1970s I-novel Territory of Light (1979), when I had a newborn and a small child, and was teaching from home during the early days of the pandemic – a period I document in the opening movement of The Light Room. It is the atmosphere of existential sadness of Tsushima that I love – her characters are single mothers who find solace in the city’s parks, alternately finding coziness and irritation with her children. Territory of Light is a conceptual project that deals with time, published monthly in a journal, demarcated by the seasons.

Territory of Light
Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light, 2019, book cover. Courtesy: Picador

Bhanu Kapil, Ban en Banlieue (2015, Nightboat)

I first encountered Bhanu Kapil’s experiments in the notebook form in the early 2010s – sentences towards a novel that never appears. There is such an energy and spirit of refusal in Ban en Banlieue, which collects and annotates the story of Ban – the young girl at the centre of the project. Kapil’s work captures the amateur feeling of a blog, a sense of play and experimentation, that I still yearn to capture.  

Heike Geissler, Seasonal Associate, trans. Katy Derbyshire (2018, Semiotext(e))

When the German writer and translator was working at a Leipzig Amazon distribution centre in 2010 during the holiday period, she began taking notes on Post-Its at night. Finding no publisher for what was then a work of reportage, she began recording and releasing audio clips on her website for free. It was a much stranger work, an essay about a deep love of literature combined with the documentation of exhaustion in the disembodied Amazon worker, a narrative schism of ‘I’ and ‘You.’ Sofia Samatar and I wrote a chapter about Seasonal Associate in our forthcoming collaborative study of literary tone (Tone, 2023). I think we are always looking for ways that memoir can feel estranged, that one can write of reality, but a reality that’s saturated by the strangeness of how we live.

Heike Geissler, Seasonal Associate, 2018, book cover. Courtesy: Semiotext(e)

Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Borealis (2021, Coffee House)

This book, simply described as ‘An Essay’ on its front cover but functioning more like a notebook, is a layered meditation on sadness and loneliness in Alaska, the ‘black outdoors,’ queer romance and friendship, and the ice paintings of Lorna Simpson. Lately, I’ve been especially interested in works that are set in nature but are antagonistic to the white and masculine tradition of nature writing. Borealis includes lovely descriptions of collages that Sloan makes in tribute to Renee Gladman’s Calamities (2016, Wave) – her experiments in drawing and language – another book that could have been on this list.

Moyra Davey, Burn the Diaries (2014, Dancing Foxes Press)

I love books that actively resist being books, actively resist questions of genre, that so openly fan out to reference other artists and writers. Moyra Davey’s books are often accompanied by narrated films and photo series. Sometimes, but not always, contained within her work are correspondences with friends (such as Annie Ernaux's English translator, Alison Strayer), and footnotes on her reading experiments, which are conceptual in nature (in Burn the Diaries, Jean Genet’s diaries).

Moyra Davey, Burn the Diaries, 2014
Moyra Davey, Burn the Diaries, 2014, book cover. Courtesy: the artist and Dancing Foxes Press

All this is layered with autobiographical fragments and compressed portraits of artists, often women and queer men, such as Davey’s portraits of Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughters in Les Goddesses (2011) and Derek Jarman in Notes on Blue (2015). Her studio practice takes shape in her bedroom and her apartment, often directly in homage to Hervé Guibert and David Wojnarowicz. In a 2012 interview in The New Yorker she called herself a ‘flâneuse who never leaves her apartment.’ Of course I love her!

Kate ZambrenoThe Light Room is published by Riverhead Books and is available from 4 July

Kate Zambreno is the author of The Light Room (2023)published by Riverhead this July. Tone (2023), a collaboration with Sofia Samatar, is forthcoming from Columbia University Press in November.