Danielle Pafunda on Occupying Our Conflicted Terrain

H. L. Hix: Most of the titles in the sequence are either of the form “Wherein the Surrogate …” or of the form “Who Chose _________,” where the blank is the name of a famous woman.  Since I read the poems (rightly or wrongly: correct me as necessary!) as treating surrogacy as a characteristic distributed across all women (in our society; not as an essential or innate characteristic), I am curious then about the relationship between commonality (as represented here by surrogacy) and singularity (as represented by the very singular women chosen).


This is surely the most awkwardly formulated question in the history of western culture, but maybe you can make sense of it…


Danielle Pafunda:


Dear Harvey,


What a terrifyingly appropriate question to ask this book! What is going on in there? Iatrogenic is the story of 1. a group of feminist-scientist-metaphysics who quit our world for one of their own making and 2. the surrogate-daughter-mothers on whom they intend to launch their new culture. It’s, to some degree, a response to Monique Wittig’s Les Guerilleres (well, really to The Warriors because my French reading skills don’t extend far beyond sacre bleu!). It’s also a response to our basic postmodern-feminist conundrum. How can we critique the culture that produced us? If we agree the patriarchy ought to be unseated, how do we do that from inside the thing? How does one write her way out of phallogocentricity if all she has is that very phallogocentric tool itself?


So: in my book, the women who leave our world choose the name of some great or maligned or treasured woman (not necessarily female born, or not necessarily feminine in gender performance, but someone who once trucked with/as woman). Golda Meir, Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor, Lille Elbe, Emma Goldman, etc. They’re conflicted. They want to cast off much of our culture, but they’re always-already homesick. They teach the surrogates an odd mish-mash of European and US history, fairytale, fable, bible story, pipe dream, and wish-fulfillment. The surrogates find themselves in a Handmaid’s Tale sort-of breeding bind. It’s in the name of progress, but as ever, progress eats its own tail before it achieves much of anything.


Look. As I’m typing, I’m thinking about this: I accept that my interiority is culturally forged, and not very well forged. It’ll shift, alter, mutate. At the same time, I do experience myself as real, central, devouring, needy, and needful. I don’t believe in progress, but I do believe things happen. I’d love to upend the patriarchy, but I can’t guarantee anything better (whatever that means) would follow in the immediate aftermath. I’m a breeder who revolts against the body-as-property equations of state and love. Gloria Anzadlúa tells us to develop (or that some of us in that third space will necessarily develop) a “tolerance for ambiguity.” I say, let’s go further. Let’s develop a predilection for ambiguity. Let’s elect it. Let’s become especially skilled at occupying our conflicted terrain, at describing the negative space of the ambiguous by filling in everything around it. This is feminist, which is synonymous with existential or ontological. This is an ontological option that I’m pursuing. Failure abounds. Edification is for the birds. Like an amalgam of my women “Who Chose…” and my Surrogates, I simultaneously choose and am chosen for. I am, and I be-as-constructed. I acknowledge these competing states (though state sounds too static a term). I’ll never (never.) own the means of production, my body, my heart, myself, but I’ll always feel indignant and possessive when someone else—some state entity, some authority or lover—puts claim on them.


I will not, by the way, feel quite so indignant when the children claim these. What a selfish thing, to bring more lives into the world. What a cruel and beautiful act, to impose ontology on a bundle of protists, fungus, bacteria, human DNA, etc. etc. that equals a human. The book is also a love poem and an act of contrition for my children. Spoiler alert: It ends in a blaze that may or may not result in a phoenix. It ends in a welcome and soothing apocalypse. I love the ending of Melancholia. Maybe I’m watching it wrong, but how else can we do away with all our warmhearted trespasses? Our narrative arcs? Our hinges to culture?


Thanks, Harvey, for this question.


Yours, and everyone’s,




Danielle Pafunda.  Iatrogenic: Their Testimonies.  Noemi Press, 2010.

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