“I absolutely want to recommend this book: Kreisläufe (Like Lips, Like Skins) by Andrea Scrima. I admire this book (and its author in any case), and it feels as though I should offer my humble thanks to Andrea Scrima, who drills into all manner of trauma, entanglements, the repetitive patterns I’m unable to drill through, not by a long shot. It’s an undeviating book in pursuit of pain and its urgent themes. Andrea Scrima describes growing up in an American family, and at the same time a young man’s early years in a GDR juvenile detention facility and the life of an artist with all its doubts and struggles of self-discovery. I don’t much feel like summarizing the contents, I only want to share how important I find this book, and—I repeat—admire it because it works its way through themes that are only seemingly personal, at first glance—because these are structural matters. This book is a call for a carefulness and closeness that know the traps of every allegedly bad memory.”
“I’d never survive in the US,” Andrea Scrima once said in an interview. At the time, the reference was to Trump’s America—but one could also apply it to her family background, which she’s portrayed in two unequivocally autobiographical novels (A Lesser Day, and now Like Lips, Like Skins). A scholarship to the art academy enabled the author to move to Germany; she lives in Berlin and has since taken on German citizenship. Yet again and again, the past catches up with her, and feelings of guilt surface. Should she have stayed to protect her younger brother from the violence-prone mother, who tyrannized her four children and silent husband? This is one of the stories Scrima tells in Like Lips, Like Skins.
The novel’s protagonist Felice is, like Andrea Scrima, an artist, and an exhibition sends her back to her native New York. Her hopes that things might have improved in her absence prove to be in vain. “Never forget that you can leave again”—this is what her partner tries to impress upon her as she’s departing Berlin. But before long, she falls prey to the past and the mother’s sudden fits of rage. When she visits the old house on Staten Island or the Burger King she worked in at the age of fifteen in a first step toward gaining independence from her family, she becomes immersed in painful memories from childhood.
Andrea Scrima is a powerful storyteller with a confident command of the German language. In collaboration with Christian von der Goltz, she translates her English-language manuscripts into German, as she’s now done masterfully for Like Lips, Like Skins (German edition: Kreisläufe, Literaturverlag Droschl, 2021).
So happy to see the book continuing to bring in reviews — this one from the “Hotlist,” a list of important new titles from independent presses.
“Wie werden wir zu dem, wer wir sind? Ist es möglich, unserer stofflichen Beschaffenheit zum Trotz, mit der wir in die Welt gesetzt wurden, der eigenen Herkunft zu entkommen? Diese Fragen verhandelt der tief tragische Roman Kreisläufe der amerikanischen Schriftstellerin und Künstlerin Andrea Scrima. Dies ist ihr zweiter fulminanter Roman nach Wie viele Tage (2018), der im Literaturverlag Droschl auf Deutsch von ihr vorliegt.”
“How do we become who we are? Is it possible, in spite of the physical givens we were born with, to escape our origins? The deeply tragic novel Kreisläufe (Eng: Like Lips, Like Skins) by the American artist and author Andrea Scrima explores these questions. This is her second brilliant novel after Wie viele Tage (Eng.: A Lesser Day, 2018) to be published in German by Literaturverlag Droschl.”
Gallus Frei-Tomic in literaturblatt.ch, January 22, 2022 (Excerpts translated from the German)
Four years ago, Andrea Scrima’s literary debut A Lesser Day was already an epiphany. Now, with her second novel, Like Lips, Like Skins, Scrima deserves a far wider audience.
All readers know that certain books are capable of generating a very special resonance. Sometimes it’s the themes that appeal or repel or in any case fascinate. And sometimes it’s the language, the sound of the words, the images that rise up from the page. With Like Lips, Like Skins, Andrea Scrima achieves everything a novel can do, at least for me. Her call to “imagine this” was so intense and worked its way through me to such an extent that, once I finished the book, I sat there somewhat stunned and began leafing back to revisit all the scenes I’d underlined and slip back under that warm blanket.
At one point in the story, after Felice has already begun enjoying some success as an artist, she flies back to New York to put up an exhibition in a gallery. Years have passed; encouraged by her friend Micha, she decides to confront the trauma of her agonizing relationship to a mother who tormented the family with her unpredictability, her explosions of rage, her way of interpreting the world according to her own whims. Felice has barely arrived, and already she’s struggling—and in this struggle she senses that she’s not only at risk of losing her family ties, but also her own self.
Like Lips, Like Skins is crafted as an act of retrospection. The first half of the book is dedicated to the mother, the second to a largely silent father who recorded what seemed important to him in calendar journals Felice saves from certain destruction and pores through after his death. What so moved me about the book is not the story of a woman’s emancipation, or the family drama, or the poison that eats its way through relationships, but the way in which Andrea Scrima approaches her subject matter—the way she conjures words and pictures at the same time. Here is an author who writes in polyphony, who layers her images and then peels the layers away to reveal the cracks in the paint. The author is uninterested in revelation or exposure. Like Lips, Like Skins is a series of images that show us how to see.
An “I” has to save itself, has to get away from home. Via London, the English Channel, and the East German transit route to West Berlin and a winter that smells like coal dust and bites the lungs. A single furious first paragraph is enough for the escape, a single breath. One could almost say the text inhales. It does this to remember: out of love, out of fear, for reasons that go deep and don’t lend themselves to being easily summarized, whose urgency, however, is beyond question in the prose of the New York-born writer and artist Andrea Scrima.
(…) The world and the narrator’s own life present her with scenes of varying degrees of danger. As moments of decision, of escalation, of quiet observation that is anything but harmless. The “I” draws a brush across a canvas and watches the excess paint collapse to either side; tracks in snow melt, freeze over, wear away. Dreams are a part of reality, a parallel world that leads to new discovery. The text retains its inner logic with virtuosic ease. How lightly and yet how powerfully this “I” holds the narrative reins in her hand.
(…) In every family, says the first-person narrator, there is a geometry at work, a concatenation of secrets and taboos. Scrima, who translated Like Lips, Like Skins together with Christian von der Goltz, incorporated both fictional and autobiographical material into the novel. Like the “I” of the book, she was born in New York, lives in Berlin, and has a son. The author lends the narrator several of her artworks, as well as much in the characters of the parents. Yet Scrima rejects the label of autofiction. The term causes people to underestimate the importance of the form, she explains in a mail, and one would like to respond that it’s hard to imagine not admiring the formal sophistication of this book. The delicate transitions between grammatical forms of past and present, for instance, which slip by unnoticed as one moves through time and space. Indeed, there’s great precision in the way recurrent patterns demarcate the various layers of experience. So precisely that one could read this novel as a poetic research text that tells the story of the end of a depression and takes on the spell of repetition in its own injured and, yes, passionate way. So much happens in this wise and beautiful book, and it’s all described without the slightest hint at an exclamation mark. The power of its appeal is all the stronger for it.
here is an excerpt from the original Germantext, which takes off from the concept of autofiction:
I’d like to draw your attention to the second part of an interview Ally Klein did with me that’s just gone up at Three Quarks Daily. We talk about my new novel, Like Lips, Like Skins, the German edition of which (Kreisläufe, meaning circuits, circulations, circles) was published a few months ago by Literaturverlag Droschl, this time with a focus on the presence and function of art in the book:
After years of writing (and finally publishing), I finally felt secure enough to go a step further in my second novel. I began describing the artmaking process, and eventually imported some of my actual art into the work in order to see what form it might take there. I was also interested in seeing how much of the original artwork can’t, in the end, be captured in words. What remains of art in its description? When you narrate it, but can’t actually see anything? Are you merely describing the intentions behind the work, are you describing an idea or the work’s appearance? Are you creating something completely new? To my surprise, I discovered that it was suddenly much more about the fictional character I ascribed a particular work to, in this case Felice—it shifted the focus to her psychology. How did she arrive at this type of art, what does it have to do with her life? What does her art say about her as a character? A completely new narrative coalesced around the description, one that’s pretty far removed from the original impulses that led to the actual work the writing is based on. I’m driven by the idea of bringing contemporary art a little closer to readers not normally all that familiar with it. This is a work of literature, after all, and not aesthetic theory. And so the concepts are somewhat simplified, and even if some of the passages are still pretty abstract, I hope the human connection comes across easily enough. Because the art in this book is only one component in a larger work that addresses many other themes: family, trauma, parents, children, getting older.
When, in Like Lips, Like Skins, I lend this work [the installation Through the Bullethole]to the protagonist, she automatically becomes associated with the mental state the work suggests—this slightly crazy, obsessive gaze through a bullet hole, this necessarily limited view of the world—it all becomes far more psychological in the book, and Felice is equated with her work much, I might add, in the way that I’m often equated with my protagonist. There’s this (I hope) hilarious scene in which the work is hanging on the walls of a gallery and Felice tries to explain the photographs to her mother, sister, and the mother’s neighbor, who they’ve brought along for some reason. All of a sudden there’s this 1:1 thing happening, it’s assumed that she’s the subject of the work in a way that never actually happened to me with the original installation—at the time I made the work, the question of authorship was never confused with the idea of a journal or diary, with a confessional gesture. It was understood to be a formal conceit. The work’s inner logic was clear, and the installation cohered in a larger way that allowed the ideas feeding it to breathe, to grow into a sort of organism. When I imported a description of this work into my book, I had to learn what it could do and what it couldn’t do. It certainly wasn’t about selling the reader on conceptual art. I simply wondered what would be left of a work as complex as this after reducing it to words—and what I could make it say about my characters.
The first chapter of the German edition Kreisläufe appeared in issue 232 of the Austrian literary magazine manuskripte; English-language excerpts have appeared in Trafika Europe,Statorec, and Zyzzyva. The German version of Part One of this interview appeared in issue 234 of manuskripte, the English version here on Three Quarks Daily. For Part Two, Ally Klein corresponded with the author over the course of several weeks via email; the above is an edited version of a talk the two gave in Berlin on December 11, 2021 at Lettrétage.
For English-language rights to Like Lips, Like Skins, please contact Soumeya Roberts of HG Literary, New York.
I’d like to draw your attention to an interview Ally Klein did with me that’s just gone up at Three Quarks Daily. We talk about my new novel, Like Lips, Like Skins, the German edition of which (Kreisläufe, meaning circuits, circulations, circles) was published a few months ago by Literaturverlag Droschl: the strange-seeming discrepancy in titles, which gets to the heart of what the novel is about, the book’s approach to visual imagery and artmaking, and some of its main themes.
One of these themes is trauma:
The moment a traumatic experience occurs, certain regions of the brain, for instance the frontal lobes, are effectively switched off, while other, older parts of the brain—the regions responsible for the organism’s survival—take over. It’s similar with flashbacks: because our understanding of time lies in the neocortex, we experience a threat from the past as immediate, as though it were happening in the here and now. Cognitive thinking as well as language and memory formation also freeze up; in other words, all of a sudden there’s this huge blind spot ballooning outwards. The senses of a person experiencing a flashback become flooded, they fail to understand that they’re not in danger, they can barely find an explanation for their affective state and physical reactions and afterwards, confused and disoriented, they remember very little.
Another theme is autofiction:
Writing in the first-person singular means that you can’t analyze a character on a meta-level or from a distance, you have to make them do things, dream, talk, think. This establishes a closer link to the reader. I gave Felice certain elements from my life, I gave her Staten Island and Berlin and some of my art—to an extent, I even lent her my own late parents. This can be misleading, of course, and it can mean that people confuse the character with the author. However, if you start reading the book in an “autofictional” manner, you’d have to become skeptical at the very latest with the character of Micha. I’ve been living in Berlin for 37 years and wanted to write about my adopted home. It was clear to me that my view of Germany would be perceived as that of an outsider, a foreigner, even if I’ve spent my entire adult life here. And so I designed a fictional character to speak in my stead; over time it became increasingly clear to me that this person had to come from the East. Micha was a vehicle for me to lend a face to some of my own observations on a divided Germany and German Reunification. I live between these two cultures, I have both an inside and an outside view of the two countries. As a former inmate in a GDR juvenile detention facility who never really gained a foothold in the West, Micha is also caught between cultures. He’s stuck in this dilemma, but as a German he has the authority to articulate his thoughts about this country. And so suddenly, the figure of Felice could become his counterpart and take on the role of the somewhat clueless American. This is where an attentive reader would have to notice that the first-person narrator can’t be autofictional—because Micha and his observations are of course the author’s thoughts, statements, and hypotheses. In other words: Micha, c’est moi.
The first chapter of Kreisläufe was published in issue 232 of the Austrian literary magazine manuskripte; English-language excerpts have appeared in Trafika Europe, StatORec, and Zyzzyva. The interview has also just appeared in German in issue 234 of manuskripte.
While I was in Graz, the wonderful Barbara Belic interviewed me for her literary program series on Austrian public radio, “Radio Helsinki.” Listen to me read a few sections from my new novel—two lengthy sections in English and the rest in German—and explain why I’m against the category “autofiction”—why it fails to see so much of the actual art of a book.
Most of you know I’m not Serbian, but I’m honored to be included in this issue of contemporary European literature titled “Serbian Moments.” It’s nice to see the first chapter of the original English edition of my second book, “Like Lips, Like Skins,” published in this fine magazine of European writing. Thanks, Trafika Europe, and thanks, Andrew Singer, for championing so much important new writing in translation.
Berlin friends! Come to a presentation and reading from the German edition of my second book, Kreisläufe.
Wednesday, September 22, 2021 | 19.30 pm | Brotfabrik
The event is in German language.
Als ich eines regnerischen Morgens die Treppen der U-Bahnstation Oranienburger Straße hinaufsteige und auf dem von Regentropfen gesprenkelten Asphalt vor mir den kupferfarbenen Widerschein der Straßenlaternen sehe, die von der letzten Nacht noch nicht erlöscht sind, erkenne ich plötzlich, wie jede Generation blindlings und unbewusst einem Auftrag unterworfen ist, die Fehler und Schmerzen der Generation vor ihr zu korrigieren, um die Schäden der Zeit wiedergutzumachen.
Im Roman Kreisläufe, das zweite Buch Scrimas, das beim Literaturverlag Droschl erschienen ist, wird mit psychologischer Tiefe eine Familiengeschichte ausgebreitet, die von starken emotionalen Bindungen, aber auch von Schicksalsschlägen erzählt.
Felice zieht nach West-Berlin der frühen 1980er Jahren und lernt den Journalisten Micha kennen, von den psychischen Folgen seiner Internierung in einem DDR-Jugendwerkhof erfährt sie nur stückweise. Dem Verdrängen von Traumata begegnet Felice auch Jahre später, als sie nach Amerika zurückkehrt und die Tagebücher ihres verstorbenen Vaters findet, die alte, zum Teil vergessene „Büchsen“ der Erinnerung öffnen. Während sie den vertrauten Kurven der väterlichen Handschrift nachspürt und seine eigenwillige Codesprache zu entziffern beginnt, sucht sie in dieser knappen Chronik nach Schlüsseln zu einer Vergangenheit, die Geheimnisse und blinde Flecken in sich birgt.
Nach der Lesung wird Kathrin Bach ein Gespräch mit der Autorin führen. Am Büchertisch der Buchhandlung Montag werden Exemplare von Kreisläufe zu erwerben sein.
An image is described: a photograph cut out of the newspaper in which a raging crowd is in the act of plundering a millionaire’s home. In the foreground, an oil painting is held aloft by several people: it’s the portrait of the millionaire. The photo was taken in the 1990s, when ethnic Chinese businessmen living in Indonesia were rumored to have caused the economic crisis of the time and suddenly found themselves in danger. The narrator describes the photograph in painstaking detail; she literally reconstructs the photograph in words. What is the mental image that results from this description, and what relationship does it bear to the original photograph? It’s about the description of an image of an image here: a text about the printed photograph of a portrait painted on canvas of a man who has fled for his life only moments before—an oil painting that was destroyed seconds after the picture was taken.
David Krippendorff: Without wanting to sound naive, first and foremost I hope that my work has a strong emotional impact. Every initial idea I ever had for a piece always started with an emotional reaction to something, be it a film or a piece of music. Throughout the process, I then conceptualize it and parse out the various political subtexts and interpretive layers. I do think that all art is political, but I am also a great believer that art should be more visceral. We live in times in which nobody trusts their feelings anymore; our society is becoming increasingly cerebral. I think this is a very dangerous trend, because remaining in touch with one’s feelings is also the first step toward empathy. When we’re detached, it becomes much easier to turn a blind eye to injustice; we fail to see the humanity in a homeless person we pass by on the street. I strongly believe that the role of art should be to help people get in touch with their feelings. To me, this becomes political, and it’s the only way that it can have an impact and make a change. We have enough “interesting” art, but how often does somebody go to a show and say: “That was really moving,” or “That was beautiful”?