Christine Lai

On Art In A Time of Crisis, Archiving Language, Fictional Diaries, and Her Debut Novel “Landscapes”

Cover of Christine Lai: On Art In A Time of Crisis, Archiving Language, Fictional Diaries, and Her Debut Novel “Landscapes”

In a near-future marked by ecological collapse, Penelope sits in a house in the English countryside, carefully cataloging the remainder of an estate’s collection. She and her partner Aidan are preparing to sell the house, which functions for the moment as a refuge for displaced people. As she sifts through the objects, she is struck by memories—the journey that led her to this house, her relationship with art, and a violent act perpetrated by Aidan’s brother, Julian. Julian himself is making a trip to the house one last time. Dreading this impending reunion, Penelope finds herself drawn further and further into the past, turning to art and writing to make sense of her present. 

Landscapes takes the form of Penelope’s diary, peppered with the catalog entries of the objects she archives, and interludes that interrogate the portrayal of women in art through time. Rich with allusions to paintings and literature, Landscapes is a quiet, deeply impactful exploration of memory and loss, and art in the face of unimaginable crisis. I spoke with Christine Lai over a video call about how novels function as personal diaries, art as a method of witnessing in times of crisis, and how the elements in Landscapes refract each other. 



Nirica Srinivasan: What was the seed for the story of Landscapes?

Christine Lai: I would say it’s the setting. I love the novels of W.G. Sebald, and in his novels, he has quite a few of these ruinous, dilapidated houses. I was really drawn to that kind of setting. I’ve always loved country house novels, like Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I wanted to pay homage to that literary tradition. The ruinous setting subverts the traditional country house novel genre. I also looked at a lot of photos online of photographers who go into these abandoned houses all throughout Europe. There’s something very melancholy about these spaces, but they’re also very appealing. That’s where it began. And then I had the image of a woman in the house with all these objects and items that had been left behind, and it grew from there.


NS: The materiality of objects is so important to the book, with the art and the objects that she interacts with. What drew you to focus on a story about objects?

CL: I think that objects play such a central role in human life, and they’re often overlooked. I think our relationship with objects is often very ritualistic. We turn to objects as a way of guiding us through various life experiences. I wanted that practice to be a part of the book, and what the objects have gone through—the fact that they’re used, and they’ve been damaged by flood, by pests. All that damage in some ways parallels what has happened to Penelope—and also what has happened to the larger world, outside the house. It’s meant to be almost a prism that refracts all these other aspects of the world. I personally find objects very inspiring—in some ways they’re like artworks. They bring you into a different kind of space and they lead to different ideas. They create this network of associations.


NS: Penelope’s narrative is punctuated by catalog entries of the work she’s archiving, and by interludes that discuss various works of art. Why did you choose this structure?

CL: The diary is obviously written by her, and as the readers find out later in the book, the art essays are also written by her, and the catalog. I’m always fascinated by novels that are written in the form of a diary or notebook, because I think that reveals so much about the character as a writer. And in this case also as an archivist, and as an art historian. We see the world through their eyes, but in an indirect way. I think all these components say something about Penelope’s preoccupations. Each of the archive items elicits memories for Penelope. She falls deeper into the past. Despite the fact that they’re external to her, they are actually integrated into her way of remembering and being.


NS: Some of the art essays discuss women in art being reduced to their bodies. I found it interesting that we were also seeing the house being viewed as its rooms, and the catalog presented in fragments across the book, all broken down to their component parts.

CL: That’s a great way of framing it, the house as a kind of body. That brings me back to Louise Bourgeois. She has this series called the Femme Maison, these drawings of houses which are also women’s bodies. It says so much about the relationship between architecture and the human body, but also a sense of entrapment—the body contained within the house. We could see Penelope being, in some ways, contained by this house, by what has happened to her during her tenure in the house, but also contained by the catalog and the art and the objects.


NS: What was the process of putting together the items from the catalog?

CL: I always allow an element of accident or serendipity when I write. I went on booksellers’ websites, like AbeBooks, and catalogs online. I just looked through all of those books and found something that really caught my eye, something that was enticing. Some of the books I have either come across physically, or I own. Obviously, what they were selling online were not damaged by pests, so I added the physical deterioration to these sources. My criteria for selecting them was that they had to resonate within the book in some way. They had to connect back to Penelope’s experiences and memories somehow. And because they’re meant to be part of a collection, there has to be some sort of a sense of cohesion.

The vintage postcards are mine. I collect a lot of those—I love ephemera, and what they say about time and impermanence and permanence. It’s so rare to see ephemera in fiction. I just wanted to give them the same space often given just to artworks.


NS: Your book has extensive references collected from different places. That also felt like a careful effort of curation. I wondered how you went about collecting them.

CL: I love fiction that’s very referential, that’s always in dialogue with other books. And that’s how I see the writing process—it is actually about reading and weaving this web of connections. I feel like I wouldn’t be able to write without other books. I’m always so influenced by books that I read and love. I wanted to pay homage to them, for example, with the references to Sebald. The quoting and the references, they’re ways of acknowledging that everything is built on these connections, and on a dialogue with other writers.

There was a lot of research involved, and as with the catalog items there was a lot of cutting. Some references don’t fit in the revised version of the manuscript. Everything that I read during those years, I would consider whether or not it would fit into the projects. There’s this quote I love from Italo Calvino. In a lecture, he talks about his process of writing Invisible Cities, and he said that the writing was almost like keeping a diary. The book became his diary in which he deposited all his thoughts, conversations he had with friends, books that he read, paintings that he loved. That’s kind of how I approached it as well—all of these things I was encountering in my daily life and all the culture I was consuming, I would consider, how does it fit into the space of the novel? In some ways, it is almost like my diary.


NS: There are many direct references, where you mention the name of an author or the specific reference. But many aren’t directly referenced but are alluded to, and the sources are only explicitly stated in the ‘notes’ section. Why did you choose to do that?

CL: In the original manuscript, there were more direct quotes, especially in the art essays. It was partly my editor’s suggestion to cut them in order to increase the readability and make the text a bit smoother.

There was something that Valeria Luiselli wrote in Lost Children Archive, in the acknowledgment section, about how she thought of quoting as a composition method and not something performative. It’s a way for the text to come together, but it’s not necessary for the reader to know the exact reference. So there are allusions that are embedded within the text or quotes that are paraphrased, rather than the direct quote. That’s how I approached it as well, because I really liked what she said. The notes are there for readers who are curious about what the sources are and where certain allusions come from. But I don’t think they’re necessary.


NS: What drew you to write it as a dual narrative? I’m assuming that Penelope’s came first. At what point did you decide to write Julian’s? 

CL: When I initially wrote it, it was a third person narrative. I felt like there was something missing. The first person narrative in the diary form came a little bit later. Once I came up with the backstory about what happened to Penelope, I wanted to bring in this second voice, for the juxtaposition. Not only is there an obvious conflict between the two characters, but they approach the world in very different ways. The way that he views art and his failure to comprehend art is juxtaposed to the way she integrates these images into how she sees herself and sees the world.

They contrast on multiple levels. His movement through these cities offers a chance for the readers to see something of the outside world, because Penelope doesn’t really leave the house all that much. His view of the world is without empathy, without compassion, which again contrasts with her drive to help others and to pay attention to what is happening outside herself.

I was also interested in definitions of monstrosity. There have been a couple of books in recent years that talk about what constitutes monstrosity—how do we portray the monster? How do we portray evil? And I wanted to tackle that. The two sections are written in slightly different styles. His section has kind of shorter, simpler sentences, less use of figurative language. All of that’s intentional, so that contrasts with her section. There is a capaciousness in her language that reflects who she is.


NS: There is this violent act at the center of the narrative, and there’s also the violence that’s being enacted on the earth. Why did you decide to set Landscapes in the near future in this space of destruction? How did you approach writing a book about multiple kinds of violence?

CL: I really wanted to erase the boundary between genres. I love books that contain that kind of porousness. My models were books such as Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. It is dystopian in many ways, but it’s very subtle—it’s all in the background. We don’t really know a lot of the details of this world. And another model was Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall, which is one of my favorite books. That has a very obvious dystopian frame, but the book isn’t really about that – it’s about community. It is about our relationship with nature and animals. I wanted to aim for something like that, where there are these elements, but they are not the focus of the book.

When it comes to the climate crisis, I suppose I feel compelled in some ways to bring that in, just because it is what we are witnessing so much in the world outside the window. It felt impossible to ignore. A lot of it that seems speculative no longer is. It’s really interesting for me when people tell me that they see this as speculative fiction, because I didn’t actually envision it that way. I think it’s more like an extrapolation, what I envision will happen in a few years’ time, as opposed to something that’s completely fantastical.

As for the violence, that came as a result of my research. There was a painting by Turner, the Rape of Prosperine, where he depicts the incident from mythology. But in the foreground of the painting, there is a barren tree. It’s just bare branches. In the background, barely visible, there are the ruins of a fortress or a castle. That led me to think about this correspondence between different kinds of ruination. That’s where Penelope’s backstory came from. I started doing research about representations of violence against women in Western art. It’s fascinating because I’ve seen some of these paintings in real life, and it never really struck me what they were depicting and what they were celebrating, and what we all as audience members or spectators collectively celebrate for centuries. I read a lot of feminist art historians, like Linda Nochlin, Mary Ann Caws, and Catherine McCormack, who’ve written so beautifully about the subject. I wanted to bring that into the novel because it was a revelatory experience for me to read about these artworks in that context.

I don’t think it’s something that’s as widely acknowledged as it should be. I think that re-contextualizing these artworks makes them more interesting – we’re adding this new layer to the work, we’re making the works relevant to our age in a different way. I do hope there will be more of these discussions in the future.


NS: I’m glad you brought up Never Let Me Go because I kept thinking of it as I read Landscapes. I was really drawn to the idea of levels of witnessing, with the character being witness to their experience, but also the reader being made a witness through the character’s witnessing. I was curious about what you thought of that.

CL: Oh, that’s very interesting. The writing of the novel is in some ways my way of witnessing catastrophe in the world outside, and Penelope writing the diaries is her way of witnessing the catastrophe within the fictional universe.

Something that I’ve thought a lot about, that I think Ishiguro also addresses, is the question of what it means to make art, even if it’s art as a form of witnessing, in a dying world. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that. But it is something that I think everyone who does creative work is somehow compelled to think about the world today. What does it mean to bear witness, and can artistic gestures ever offer sufficient witness? Can a book ever sufficiently document what is happening?

I think that’s worth thinking about. I do feel like there is a limit to what language can do in the face of crisis. It’s a very humbling thing to think about that, in the face of such a crisis, what we can do is very limited and is perhaps minute, but we will do it, nevertheless. There’s a quote by James Baldwin – you write, knowing that you cannot change the world. That’s something that I always come back to.


NS: A lot of what you’re talking about in the book, like the art, obviously, is very visual. Your words are what’s bringing that image to life. How did you approach that?

CL: I love ekphrasis. I’m always collecting literary texts that engage with artworks. It’s certainly a challenge, and something that I’m still learning, so I feel like this is an ongoing process. There are so many different ways of approaching or writing about an artwork—ways of approaching an image and excavating all of these layers underneath a work of art or a photograph. There’s this great quote from Orhan Pamuk where he talks about how the novelist is secretly jealous of the visual artist, because, when we write, we visualize the space in which the character moves, and the process of writing is about translating that into words. There’s a directness in visual arts that we simply cannot do in writing. I think it’s a very worthwhile challenge to tackle.


NS: I was very drawn in by the vividness and the atmosphere of your novel.

CL: I quite like atmospheric books, and to have a sense of melancholy. There’s this Belgium-based photographer called Mirna Pavlovic. She goes into abandoned castles and houses all throughout Europe, and she photographs them in ethereal light. They’re very stunning photos. They’re quite sad in that they remind you of what has been lost. But at the same time, I’m interested in the history of these houses, the fact that the wealth was founded on the colonial enterprise and how it’s all linked to slavery and to colonialism. All this wealth is linked to exploitation and destruction.

In some ways there is a sense of hope in the ruins – that these places are fallen, and that there’s potentially something new that could grow from the ruins. I don’t think of the ruins as necessarily something that’s dark that induces pessimism or despair. I think that they can also be symbols of hope, of regeneration. The flowers growing in the fissures in the house are meant to point towards this—that there’s something new to come from what has been destroyed.

I think it is important, for the reader living in the world that we live in, to not have complete despair. I wouldn’t say I’m very optimistic about the future of the world. But I think it’s important to have hope, even if it is subtle and frail. I think it’s important for us to continue to think about these issues and to continue contributing in whatever way we can.



Christine Lai grew up in Canada and lived in England for six years during graduate studies. She holds a PhD in English Literature from University College London. Landscapes was shortlisted for the inaugural Novel Prize, offered by New Directions Publishing, Fitzcarraldo Editions, and Giramondo. Christine currently lives in Vancouver.


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