Sam Cohen’s Sarahland is a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries that look at the lives of many Sarahs across time and locale; play­ing with nar­ra­tive against a sur­re­al back­drop, Sam Cohen spoke to JBC about sto­ry­telling, the self ver­sus the col­lec­tive, and queer com­ing of age stories. 

Simona Zaret­sky: Sarahland is com­prised of ten sto­ries of Sarah’s that span time and place, but there is a con­nec­tiv­i­ty that links each one to the next (and not just the pres­ence of a Sarah char­ac­ter). What drew you to this intri­cate form of sto­ry­telling? What attract­ed you to the sto­ry of Sarah — bib­li­cal­ly speak­ing, and in more con­tem­po­rary times?

Sam Cohen: I had the idea to do a col­lec­tion of sto­ries with a sin­gle char­ac­ter name because I loved the idea that it’s not pos­si­ble to ful­ly sep­a­rate self from non-self. Sarah” had been kind of my avatar name in writ­ing long before I start­ed this book.

I love that you call the form of sto­ry­telling intri­cate because I think you’re right, but to some degree I chose to write sto­ries because it seemed eas­i­er than a nov­el. But then I thought that sto­ries were such a great way to tell a queer com­ing of age sto­ry — an almost oblit­er­a­tion and then rebirth as some­thing else — made pos­si­ble because of the sto­ry that was left behind, or the new sto­ry being discovered.

I knew that I had to include the bib­li­cal Sarah because she is the first Sarah, the ori­gin of Sarahs! I had the idea that the bib­li­cal Sarah would be a flash piece, a quick retelling of the para­ble, but it kept rais­ing new ques­tions and grow­ing and end­ed up becom­ing so cen­tral to the book.

SZ: Many of the char­ac­ters are in a fog­gy state of being; they are strug­gling to cre­ate a defined self. In the very first sto­ry, Sarahland,” you look at the idea of the real Sarah” as the nar­ra­tor strug­gles to find a sense of iden­ti­ty or per­son­hood out­side of the horde of Sarahs.” There is at once a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of the selves appar­ent in the nar­ra­tor, and yet she her­self feels devoid of unique­ness; the char­ac­ters then seem to be drawn to the oth­er, or those they sense as fol­low­ing qual­i­ties or pas­sions that make them indi­vid­u­als. They are iner­tia sucked.” Can you dis­cuss this recur­ring char­ac­ter trait and theme?

SC: So this ques­tion of how or whether to indi­vid­u­ate and what we” join up with are the themes that start­ed the col­lec­tion, and those themes were real­ly under­scored by the con­tin­u­ous-yet-dis­joint­ed Sarah that became endem­ic to the form of the book. When I was younger and in work­shops, I learned fic­tion craft in this way that made it seem as though it was a giv­en that char­ac­ters” had these dis­crete sets of traits, that they want­ed” some­thing and you had to know what that thing was. But I nev­er knew what I want­ed as a per­son and I thought, what if what the char­ac­ter wants is to know what they want? Or, what if they want a way of liv­ing that makes sense to them? A kind of cohe­sion that they lack? I just read an inter­view with Joe Brainard where he says he’s annoyed that most peo­ple don’t take seri­ous­ly enough that we’re ani­mals and I thought that would have been a good epi­graph for this book. The char­ac­ters want to take being an ani­mal seri­ous­ly and they’re so far removed from that.

When I got old­er I start­ed to real­ize, well, when the col­lec­tive is so uncon­cerned with the health of the whole — as ours is — it’s hard to know how to be. Indi­vid­u­a­tion some­times feels like a cap­i­tal­ist trap, a way to keep you obsessed with your own image, spend­ing your mon­ey and ener­gy on self-improve­ment. For a lot of the char­ac­ters in Sarahland, a kind of merg­ing or twin­ning with oth­er char­ac­ters makes it feel pos­si­ble to find oth­er ways of being, whether it’s get­ting seri­ous about being an ani­mal or try­ing to cre­ate a self out­side of patri­ar­chal think­ing. A lot of girls do this, not just queer or fem­i­nist-lean­ing girls I think — start to dress alike, devel­op their own lan­guage, twin — as they devel­op lit­tle worlds away from the male gaze, lit­tle worlds where they are free together.

SZ: There is a per­va­sive sense of lim­it­ed agency, for those oper­at­ing with­in the patri­ar­chal bina­ry stan­dards of soci­ety, per­son­i­fied with­in the set­ting of God ver­sus Moth­er Nature. Can you speak a bit about this male/​female bina­ry and how you address it in your stories?

SC: The God char­ac­ter is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the patri­ar­chal and hier­ar­chi­cal sto­ries that pow­er our world, the kind of think­ing that exists behind so much plan­e­tary life — includ­ing the idea that the lives of many humans exist as resources for a few spe­cial humans. Moth­er Nature is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a form of sto­ry­telling about a dif­fer­ent kind of pow­er: the con­nec­tiv­i­ty and inter­de­pen­den­cy between all Earth’s life. And so God’s van­quish­ing of Moth­er Nature is real­ly about patri­ar­chal think­ing and dom­i­na­tion usurp­ing curios­i­ty and con­cern for the collective.

For a lot of the char­ac­ters in Sarahland, a kind of merg­ing or twin­ning with oth­er char­ac­ters makes it feel pos­si­ble to find oth­er ways of being.

I see how this feels rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a male/​female bina­ry because it’s true that hier­ar­chi­cal pow­er in our soci­ety puts cishet white men at the top, and every­one else is a kind of resource for that group — or reviled for their refusal/​inability to be. But in my view, the patri­ar­chal pow­er rep­re­sent­ed by this God” ben­e­fits no one. Mas­culin­i­ty demands renun­ci­a­tion from feel­ing, from the pos­si­bil­i­ty of trans­for­ma­tion, from full con­nec­tion — it even demands vio­lence, and treat­ing oth­ers as resources. It’s true that there are some men with vio­lent ten­den­cies in the book, but I actu­al­ly don’t believe they’re act­ing on organ­ic desire but instead accord­ing to this sto­ry of mas­cu­line pow­er. It’s also true that in a soci­ety run­ning on a sto­ry of patri­ar­chal pow­er, a sim­i­lar set of behav­iors is demand­ed of women in order to gain any kind of equal­i­ty,” in what Naked Fur­ni­ture Sarah calls, The Grand Shit­pile.” A soci­ety oper­at­ing by the log­ic of Moth­er Nature” might upend the bina­ry and ulti­mate­ly be ben­e­fi­cial to every­one, includ­ing men and also the trees and the polar bears.

SZ: Through­out the col­lec­tion, TV shows and movies are impor­tant cul­tur­al touch­stones and impor­tant parts of char­ac­ters’ lives. Can you talk about the sig­nif­i­cance of these cul­tur­al ref­er­ences and why it was impor­tant to steep so many of the sto­ries in these real-life cul­tur­al expe­ri­ences and indi­vid­u­als, espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing the sur­re­al set­tings of some of them?

SC: I was think­ing a lot about José Muñoz’s Disiden­ti­fi­ca­tions while writ­ing this book, espe­cial­ly Exor­cism.” Muñoz was inter­est­ed in how queer and minori­tized peo­ple find odd ways to iden­ti­fy with fig­ures from pop cul­ture and media and, in this strange iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, trans­form those fig­ures in order to allow for new pos­si­ble ways to move and to be. I want­ed to try out doing that in fiction.

SZ: The rit­u­al of eat­ing and drink­ing plays such an impor­tant role in how char­ac­ters inter­act and in their own sense of self-worth. It seems tight­ly bound up in fem­i­nin­i­ty and the body, and the spo­ken and unspo­ken rules of con­sump­tion and mate­r­i­al cul­ture — what is the sig­nif­i­cance of this?

SC: The First Sarah,” the bib­li­cal sto­ry, is set in a time when, I’m imag­in­ing, there’s a lot more con­nec­tion to the land, more aware­ness of how indi­vid­ual plants and ani­mals come to com­pose the body. I actu­al­ly think eat­ing is one of the deep­est, most roman­tic merge-rela­tion­ships there is, but food is so abstract­ed in our culture.

In the first cou­ple of sto­ries, the char­ac­ters exist in all-girl con­texts (a dorm and a fetish dun­geon) in which it’s not real­ly accept­able for girls to eat. I think what under­lies it is this mes­sag­ing that the world is not for you, you need to find a way to sub­sist, but for oth­ers, with­out find­ing your own deep pleasure.

SZ: Tra­di­tion­al high­er edu­ca­tion is the back­ground of sev­er­al of the sto­ries, and it is a com­bi­na­tion of lit­er­a­ture and social expe­ri­ences that seem to be the piv­otal forces for the char­ac­ters. Can you speak about the influ­ence of edu­ca­tion — for­mal and infor­mal — through­out the stories?

SC: I’ve spent a lot of my life in aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions and I feel aware that such insti­tu­tions are often con­texts in which peo­ple are able to remain sort of hypo­thet­i­cal, sort of in a place of end­less pos­si­bil­i­ty. Even tra­di­tion­al edu­ca­tion in this book is often not used tra­di­tion­al­ly, but is kind of a hide­out space for char­ac­ters who are unable join and ful­ly par­tic­i­pate in the world. Even when Sarahland” Sarah is pre-med, she is secret­ly plan­ning to become a dol­phin sci­en­tist, or even a dol­phin. When Naked Fur­ni­ture” Sarah changes her major to Eng­lish, she’s learn­ing from the books that are passed on to her from oth­er students.

I also like to poke a lit­tle fun at peo­ple who live with­in aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions — such as in Gem­stones” and Becom­ing Trees” — who some­times ascribe a kind of eth­i­cal puri­ty to them­selves. But I also love peo­ple who remain ide­al­ists, who imag­ine new ways of being, who believe a new world is pos­si­ble — and these are often the same people.

SZ: In Naked Fur­ni­ture” you exam­ine the destruc­tive­ness of hav­ing only one nar­ra­tive, The Only Sto­ry,” as Sarah/​Dorothy thinks of it.The famil­iar­i­ty of the nar­ra­tive seems to have lim­it­ed her as an indi­vid­ual — can you speak about nar­ra­tive and how the sto­ries, indi­vid­u­al­ly and as a whole, dis­rupt more tra­di­tion­al lin­ear approaches?

SC: Yes, I love this ques­tion. Sarahland is very much a book about find­ing and cre­at­ing new sto­ries by which to live. That hap­pens with­in indi­vid­ual sto­ries as char­ac­ters reimag­ine pop cul­ture and the Bible, or sim­ply reject what they’ve learned is pos­si­ble and then are sort of adrift as in Naked Fur­ni­ture.” As a whole, I see the book as a queer com­ing of age sto­ry that is punc­tu­at­ed by each Sarah hav­ing an almost full-stop end­ing to her sto­ry and way of being, before she is reborn as a new ver­sion of her­self, in a new con­text. Being sto­ries, it’s pos­si­ble for the book to not just have one answer or end­ing, but a series of options for types of endings.

Being sto­ries, it’s pos­si­ble for the book to not just have one answer or end­ing, but a series of options for types of endings.

SZ: Could you talk a bit about your lit­er­ary influ­ences? (The Bible, per­haps?) Fan fic­tion is also present through­out the sto­ries, how did this genre affect your own work?

SC: When I write using lit­er­ary and pop cul­ture ref­er­ences I’m more influ­enced by New Nar­ra­tive — Kathy Ack­er, Dodie Bel­lamy, and even some younger queer writ­ers like Tom Cho and Myr­i­am Gur­ba — than direct­ly by fan fic­tion, which, I will admit, I am not a read­er of. Some years ago, my friend’s teenaged daugh­ter came to stay with me for a few days and taught me all about fan fic­tion, and I saw a con­nec­tion between fan fic­tion and new nar­ra­tive — a sim­i­lar impulse to insert one­self into the sto­ry, to under­stand the self via fic­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion, to want to dwell— maybe too long — in fic­tion­al worlds. When I was writ­ing a char­ac­ter who was very obses­sive, who had trou­ble dis­tin­guish­ing between fan­ta­sy and real­i­ty, it felt like a nat­ur­al fit to make her a fan fic­tion writer. Sim­i­lar­ly, I love see­ing the Bible as a series of sto­ries open for riff­ing, trans­la­tion, and adapt­ing to my own desires.

SZ: In Gem­stones,” Ry ulti­mate­ly makes deci­sions based on the emo­tion­al log­ic that the fear of los­ing home was so pri­mal.” How do you see the idea of home play­ing out in these sto­ries and as a dri­ving force?

SC: It’s so incred­i­bly hard to find a home that feels safe and com­fort­able, and so to will­ing­ly give up home is ter­ri­fy­ing, even if it means fol­low­ing desire, or grow­ing. Some­times these things feel at odds — liv­ing in safe­ty and com­fort with oth­ers, ver­sus try­ing to trans­form the self and the col­lec­tive — or find­ing a new col­lec­tive in order to trans­form the self — this is a real ten­sion in the book.

SZ: What is Sarahland to you?

SC: A great ques­tion and a hard one to answer because Sarahland is always trans­form­ing! It starts out as a kind of sti­fling col­lec­tive — this all girls’ unof­fi­cial­ly-Jew­ish col­lege dorm, in which girls keep each oth­er safe by adapt­ing to het­eropa­tri­ar­chal norms. But it real­ly trans­mutes so that by the end it’s a part-plas­tic world that has some­how giv­en birth to new life. And so maybe Sarahland is always the col­lec­tive one finds, or cre­ates, or is stuck in, that then deter­mines who the self — the Sarah — is, or can be.

SZ: What are you cur­rent­ly read­ing? What are you work­ing on next?

SC: I just read Leono­ra Carrington’s The Hear­ing Trum­pet and loved it. I am enjoy­ing read­ing some oth­er just-released books as I go through book launch activ­i­ties: Detran­si­tion, Baby, Lus­ter, 100 Boyfriends, Milk Fed. I am read­ing Swann’s Way for a book club. What’s next is in ear­ly stages and there­fore a surprise.

Simona is the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s man­ag­ing edi­tor of dig­i­tal con­tent and mar­ket­ing. She grad­u­at­ed from Sarah Lawrence Col­lege with a con­cen­tra­tion in Eng­lish and His­to­ry and stud­ied abroad in India and Eng­land. Pri­or to the JBC she worked at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Her writ­ing has been fea­tured in LilithThe Nor­mal School, Dig­ging through the Fat, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She holds an MFA in fic­tion from The New School.