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“Our stories go looking for people to write them down”: A Conversation with Cody Caetano
In this interview, novelist Jean Marc Ah-Sen talks with writer and literary agent Cody Caetano about his new memoir ‘Half-Bads in White Regalia.’
Jean Marc Ah-Sen: In Half-Bads, you take on the subject position of an observant, vulnerable account taker. Memoirs can sometimes be written in an incontestably authoritative manner that verges on overbearing. How important was it for you to present a narrator that was open to self-discovery and doubt?
I think Mary uses that explicit term in lecture, but The Art of Memoir is an invaluable contemporary resource for memoirists, which I referenced often while writing Half-Bads.
Uncertainty [is] one of the great promises a memoir can deliver to a reader.
JMA: Your parents O Touro and Mindimooye feature prominently in the book, and you excavate family secrets that a less valiant memoirist might have avoided. What instincts did you follow when considering which elements of your family history you would magnify or overlook?
JMA: Your prose style integrates gamer slang, Anishinaabemowin, and Portuguese. Why was it important for you to graft a poetic register onto a literary form primarily known for being a prosaic one?
JMA: Your approach to the memoir is one that understands its potential as a radical text—radical in the sense of aesthetics as much as politics. Do you think that the memoir is a viable medium because of its permutability?
JMA: The memoir is the first installment in a planned tetralogy. How do you conceive of these four books working together? I’m wondering what ground the second book, The Cancelling of Captain Pleasure Dome, will cover.
JMA: What was the influence of renowned Indigenous writer Lee Maracle on your work, who was also a mentor figure to you?
I’m still figuring out my answer to this question. But little compares to working with and getting to know Lee. She didn’t hold my hand or give me pages of feedback or marked-up drafts. But she had such effective and personable and singular methodologies for teaching and telling stories. Lee cared deeply about the role and responsibility of a writer, and [she] believed, practiced, and embodied spiritual concatenation and sought to connect the different generations together.
She taught me that we can handle whatever the Creator sends us; that we need 30,000 writers to educate an Indigenous child; that we must feed the world without hating that we’re feeding it, that a bear’s head isn't that big for no reason; and that our stories go looking for people to write them down.
JMA: Your article in The Walrus regarding whether Indigenous memoir-writing might constitute a kind of “trauma porn” explored how different audiences relate to a body of work. How do you juggle writing that is guided by your motivations as an artist with reception theory and what Hans Robert Jauss called “the horizon of expectations,” both of which largely fall within the domain of the critic? Does your writing seek to collapse the distinction between these two disciplines?
JMA: You also discussed the concept of “ordained platforming” in the piece—this idea that voices can be celebrated or silenced within a tradition of writing. At what point does a desire to create inclusive spaces in the arts become a fetishization of one type of experience or an objectification of alterity? What is the best way to keep these impulses in check?
I’m not sure I understand what criteria professional artists, who have vested interests in establishing their own position as artists within a tradition and time period and context and community, use to decide who is and/or isn’t the right person to create art or tell stories. Art and storytelling are inextricably linked to imagination and memory and the interior and worldview and those are difficult to quantify or assess objectively, frankly. I absolutely understand when people and communities support artists they feel best represent them and they lean into those artists as representatives. But it is interesting to me when artists themselves determine who is and isn’t the right person “for the job,” because those determining artists are expressing conflicts of interest when they identify as representatives of a collective, in a very authorial way, whether or not they do indeed have that support.
JMA: On top of being a writer, you’re an associate agent at the Transatlantic Agency. How did you start your career as a literary representative? Does your background as a writer inform your approach to accommodating your clients and their needs?
JMA: What do you look for in a manuscript, and how much do market considerations factor into your decision-making? Are you a proponent of following or guiding where the market is headed?
Jean Marc Ah-Sen is the author of Grand Menteur, In the Beggarly Style of Imitation, and a participant in the collaborative omnibus novel Disintegration in Four Parts. He lives in Toronto.
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