Q&A with Christine Hume: ‘Saturation Project’ and Resisting the Myth

Lily Nilipour

Christine Hume’s Saturation Project (192 pages; Solid Objects) is a boldly ambitious piece of experimental nonfiction that defies easy categorization. The book is split into three parts, and in each one we witness the story of a life, and hear the sounds that underlie it, whether it’s the “hum” that grants its name to the middle section of the book or the wind that commands much of Hume’s attention in the third section. Whatever this current might be, it rushes beneath her words like subterranean rivers moving undetected until they either emerge gradually from the depths. Hume spoke with ZYZZYVA via email about the themes and inspirations behind Saturation Project.

ZYZZYVA: Saturation Project begins with an extended reconstruction of the mythology of Atalanta. But you also use these myths to think about your life and experience. What to you is the role of myth in memoir? What can these stories, which recur through human history, tell us about ourselves? 

Christine Hume: When you uproot and resettle every couple of years from birth, you realize early the tragically tenuous and vitally crucial role memory plays in forming a self. Your memories—the stories your family and friends tell about you and the stories you tell about yourself—create a self-mythology around certain core ideas. Was I independent or neglected, tough or unlovable; or did my parents think so highly of me that their protection would have been an insult, crushing my power in the world? Our conventional expectations of narrative get in the way of a lived life, the complexity of these kinds of interpretive choices.

Saturation Project acknowledges gender and sexuality, particularly, as mythologies. Recall female monsters of Greek mythology—Medusa, Chimera, Charybdis, the Erinyes, Scylla, the Sphinx—whose terrorizing requires us to fear women’s honesty, assertiveness, anger, hunger, our very voices and bodies. Of course, how we imagine selfhood and its relation to narrative time and language is so tightly packed into culture, there’s no way to extricate ourselves from myth structures. We indulge mythologies, necessarily, at the same time we must try understand them as such and resist their illusion of intelligibility.

Z: There are so many different anecdotes and phenomena that you draw from in Saturation Project. What was it like researching (and even organizing) the content for this book?

CH: Researching was the best! The feeling of finding magnetic and uncanny correspondences, of collecting and arranging sentences and resonances that alchemically swerve and conjure certain aspects of this book’s story still amazes me. Then the extended process of saturating each chapter with the sounds and images of the others is the slowest excitement I’ll ever experience.

Z: The fragmented, spiraling form of Saturation Project makes me think of similarly experimental nonfiction like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being. Can you speak to the importance of form in this work? 

CH: Saturation Project needed to enact threshold experiences. The modular form, the paragraph as a compositional unit, provided that serial threshold. I wanted to use the gaps between them to activate the reader, to offer the reader the thrill of discovering and experiencing a world rather than inheriting, or worse, reading about the world. Connections are implied, elliptical, reconstitutive, accumulative, substitutive, allowing something below the threshold of articulation, something suppressed, to haunt the text.

The book is not in a rush to cross thresholds, but more interested in holding tensions between states such as sound and language, ephemerality and stability, feral and domestic, myth and memoir. And because the book dwells in girlhood, it, too, is full of thresholds—a constant state of deep rejecting last year and yearning for next year. As a writer, I was also in a transformative moment, transitioning away from my disciplinary identity as a poet, writing my first book of prose. I graphed the poem onto the paragraph as a way to find continuity and a portal to sustained prose.

Z: In the second section of your book,“Hum,” you write that certain passages of Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and Samuel Beckett are “subliminally indistinguishable from the sounds of my own thought,” with “rhythms [that] drive me so far inward, I fall to dreaming.” Many of the works by these authors are concerned with internal rhythms, and the movements of both the body and language itself. What do you take from the modernists —or other sources of inspiration—for Saturation Project and your work at large? 

CH: One thing I’m consciously attuned to in some modernist prose is the sentence as a vector of rhythm and sonic intelligences that overtake sematic meanings. The immersive manifestations of the pulse of thought—fragmented, digressive, suggestive thinking—seduces me into a kind of trance, where reading feels like thinking, singing, listening to music, having a conversation, walking around a city, and dreaming all at once. Like the embodied act of thinking itself, each new sentence breaks away from and reconstitutes it predecessor by revision, reconsideration, or regret. Their sentences treat grammatical units as musical phrases and ever-splintering philosophical questions that, as a reader, I feel somatically.

Z: Why write about wind? 

CH: I’m interested in subjects that engage and challenge narrative structure—sonic structures, transition structures, speculative structures, weather structures, etc.—in order to reveal what ideology conceals. Wind questions our sense of the future: where is the wind going, where has it been? What visible and invisible forces, what occult and scientific imaginations, what memories and memento mori does it animate? What catastrophes and ecologies, what physics and poetics does it carry?

Z: As we near the end of Saturation Project, we see more and more of your daughter. The final moment of the book is rather forward-looking: the wind “is a sibyl” carrying “shreds of songs” and “half-thoughts humming.” In memoir, which is supposedly about the past, what is the role of the future?

CH: I never imagined I was writing a memoir. I thought of each chapter here as a distinct essay, then I saw how they were a triptych on girlhood, and only when asked to describe it did I reluctantly claim the genre experimental memoir or lyric memoir. Reluctant because genre frames our expectations, and I may be setting readers up for a disappointment. Maybe “self-portrait” is a better label. Should have thought of that before!

As a newish mother at the time of writing this book, the double act of looking at my girlhood as I imagined my daughter’s womanhood seemed inevitable. Nothing like parenthood to roughen up your sense of futurity—clock, calendric, generational or liturgical time collapses and becomes confused. The past prepares us (unpredictably!) for the future; the speculative future changes the way and what we remember as our past. The past isn’t even past, as Faulkner famously said. I can’t go on; I’ll go on, as Beckett famously said. A tail chasing its dog, as no one famous ever said.

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