Conversations Between Friends: Shannon Perri and Jennifer duBois
Jennifer duBois’s latest novel, The Last Language, published this month with Milkweed Editions, explores the ethically precarious choices of Angela, a promising linguist and young mother who’s lost everything: her husband, her second pregnancy, and her place in a prestigious graduate program. Following her removal from Harvard, Angela has accepted a low-paying position at an experimental therapy center aimed at helping nonspeaking clients with motor impairments communicate.
Utilizing the center’s technology and letting go of her previously held convictions around how language and consciousness relate, Angela grows convinced that she’s unlocked a communication line with her patient, Sam, who, for the first time, is able to express his deep world of thoughts. However, as the center’s practices lose credibility and their relationship grows intimate, the reader becomes less certain whether the two are actually conversing or if Angela is only imagining it. Before long, the romantic nature of their relationship is discovered, which culminates in criminal charges against Angela. The Last Language, told from Angela’s point of view while she serves time in prison, is a propulsive moral mystery that will no doubt break your heart.
Jennifer duBois was one of my professors during my MFA in Creative Writing at Texas State University, and it was a joy to speak with her again. Over Zoom, we discussed story structure, the link between language and thought, how teaching can fuel creativity, and Jennifer’s pull toward writing a “claustrophobic, Nabokovian, first-person narrative.”
Shannon Perri: How did you first stumble upon the concept of facilitated communication therapy? Was this the initial idea for the project?
Jennifer duBois: The first inklings of this book really involved this intellectual debate within linguistics, this question of whether speech predates thought or thought predates speech, which I read about, probably around 2016 or 2017. I also really loved Euphoria by Lily King. I loved how she plots this beautiful, emotional plot atop this intellectual plot, the way the intellectual questions have deep character stakes. I was interested in trying that, but I didn’t have the architecture yet.
And then, as often happens in terms of inspiring my work, I read a news story. I’m trying not to bring a lot of oxygen to the real-life story, just because it’s a sad event that occurred in some private people’s lives, but the superficial facts are similar to this novel. There was an academic who engaged in this controversial technology, who fell in love with her client, and then there were charges pressed. I thought, that’s kind of a perfect scenario to explore these intellectual questions about linguistics and how speech and thought relate. That’s the sort of intellectual question that would underpin the major emotional and moral question: is this person engaged in a tragic love affair that nobody understands, or is she exploiting a disabled man who actually can’t consent?
SP: The narrator, Angela, is haunted by the question: can consciousness exist without language? What about this enigma intrigues you?
JdB: You know, I happened to read some fascinating books about this topic, the research from which is all over the novel. Guy Deutscher’s book, Through the Language Glass, offers a lot of anecdotal evidence that Angela provides in support of linguistic determinism. He writes about how not only does language provide the essential scaffolding for thought, but also, in fact, it directs our consciousness in every tiny possible way, like whether we think of an object such as a chair as having a gender somehow, because a lot of languages assign gender to objects, obviously. He argues that it’s not just the case that we think in a certain language but that the language we think in intimately shapes how we think and who we are.
I read some interesting rebuttals as well, and it’s a fascinating intellectual debate. Probably for most people, but especially for writers, it’s very hard to conceive of what thinking without language would be. And the question isn’t really, can you have consciousness without language? It’s more, can you have a fully developed human-level consciousness without language? I have no idea. I’m not a very visual or imagistic person. My whole brain is so founded in language that it’s inconceivable to me to try to fathom different ways of being fully human, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.
SP: This is your first novel told from only one point of view. What drew you to writing from the perspective of one character this time?
JdB: Well, partly, it was exhaustion. I had previously written this really complicated, structurally complex book where I was like, “What if I do third-person present tense and a first-person retrospective, and they switch out?” I needed something with less structural bells and whistles, and this seemed like the perfect story for a claustrophobic, Nabokovian, first-person narration that was linear and more structurally straightforward.
I was also interested in writing a book that centers around a moral and ethical mystery. I don’t particularly like the term “unreliable narrator” because I think all narrators are unreliable, but I was attracted by the idea of writing about a really thorny ethical quandary from one person’s perspective and letting readers have that experience of being perhaps initially quite on board with the narrator and then having these unsettling, unresolved questions raised around the margins.
I wanted readers to be able to sit with both bleak interpretations, one being that she actually has been so self-deluded that she exploited this man who was not capable of consenting and imagined all these exchanges between them, and that’s obviously horrifying. But then, the alternative is also dark. What if she was right, and they were in love, and Sammy had this fully developed human adult consciousness that only she was able to access, and now they’ve been parted forever, and he’s been deprived of his one mode of communication? Readers will probably come to their own conclusions, but I did want the discomfort of not being sure and knowing that a terrible crime has been committed either way.
SP: Regardless of which reality is true, Angela seems so genuine in her beliefs. I think most people can justify their behavior to themselves to some degree, and that’s something quite universal about this character. No one sees themselves as the villain, right?
JdB: The other trait about her that is pretty universal is that she immediately abandons her intellectual commitments when the emotional situation changes. She starts out as this committed linguistic determinist who believes that thought can’t really exist outside of language, and then as soon as she meets Sam and starts to have these conversations with him, she completely changes her mind. I don’t know if I think that’s insincere or hypocritical. Sometimes people do have theories about how things work intellectually, and then when they’re confronted with real life, they change their minds. But I also think it’s an indicator that she’s not primarily motivated by intellect. She’s motivated by emotion, which, again, is common. She’s just not exactly who she thinks she is.
SP: You spoke earlier about how this book’s structure is more straightforward than your other books; however, I found the structure to be formally interesting because it has this very specific point of telling. Even though she knows that Sam will probably never see this document, it’s written directly to him and feels like both a love letter and a defense of her actions. How did you land on the form?
JdB: The form of the prison-house confession or public apology was inspired by Lolita. I thought about Lolita a lot while writing this book, even though I don’t think the moral question in my book is comparable, because in Nabokov’s novel there’s not really a moral question. There’s a lot to admire about Lolita, but we know what Humbert Humbert is doing, and we know it’s wrong. My novel attempts to pose an ethical question where we don’t actually know the nature of what’s going on. But I did very much think about Lolita and Nabokov—obviously, he’s throughout the book. It’s also, I guess, a pretty classic structure to introduce the idea that she’s already imprisoned for the events that you will now follow.
The direct address came out naturally. There are some craft choices that feel secondary, like you tweak them or move them around or change them, and then there are some that just feel completely baked in. The direct address, much like the first-person POV, was completely in the book’s DNA. It just felt integral to the tone. Also, I think it helps with the handling of information because she’s retelling the events from this defensive crouch. She’s in prison, creating something that’s potentially a legal document. There are a lot of reasons for her to shape narration in a certain way and with a certain emotional valence, and I liked that layer too.
SP: I also want to talk about your character development of Sam because he’s essentially the inverse of Angela in that we’re so in her head while his true inner world is a mystery. Anything we know of him comes through Angela’s point of view, and I was just curious if, to you, the author, he’s also a mystery. How was it to construct him as a character?
JdB: You get a lot of Sam in dialogue—I think he is a pretty lively, distinct person—but of course, we don’t really know if that’s him talking or not, so there are two levels of characterization. But to me, he is 100% as real as Angela, and by that, I don’t mean necessarily that that’s my preferred interpretation of the book. It’s just that they’re both made up. To me, their relationship to realism is equal because I invented both.
One aspect that was tricky—because I was trying to sustain these multiple possible interpretations—was trying to create some details about Sam that Angela doesn’t really notice, which is hard when you’re in a first-person point of view. The idea is that she’s reporting everything. One characteristic I tried to put in was that he is physically responsive to music, and it’s not something that Angela ever truly notices and it’s not something that Sam ever talks about. That could just be something that never came up between them, or that could be a bit of characterization of the nonspeaking possible version of Sam. The fact that Angela never reflects on it might be a clue that she’s inventing the dialogue subconsciously, or it might not be. It was hard to come up with little things like that.
SP: The book feels so propulsive and it is tightly written. Did it come out that way, or did a lot change during revision?
JdB: It did kind of come out that way. It was just one of those books where I saw the whole thing from the beginning. It underwent some revision, but not in terms of the structure or the plotting. Much of the revision was focused on clarifying the technology and how it works, how they sit together. Readers had a lot of questions about that. Because the reader has to make up their own interpretation of what’s going on, it is important that they have a very clear sense of the physicality.
SP: As we wrap up, I’d like to switch gears and ask a broader question: how does teaching inform your creative life?
JdB: Occasionally, over the course of teaching my graduate students, sometimes we as a group—me and the students—come up with a new insight that clarifies my thinking about writing. And that’s great.
But I think the big thing is that being with people who are just starting out in this field, who believe in it and many of whom are treating this as the center of their lives reenergizes me and gets me excited about writing again. Workshops can feel very high stakes, and there’s something a little comical about that, but in a way, there’s something very beautiful to me and very profound about people sitting around taking this stuff so seriously. It is inspiring to be around that kind of liveliness and commitment. After four novels and teaching for a long time, you can get a little cynical about some of the stuff, and I find spending time in the classroom, especially with the MFA students, to be a real antidote to cynicism, so that’s pretty meaningful.
SHANNON PERRI holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Texas. Her fiction, essays, and interviews have appeared in The Millions, Sycamore Review, Joyland Magazine, Texas Highways, NBC News, and elsewhere. She lives in South Austin and is currently at work on a collection of short stories. Follow her on Instagram @shannonperriii.
JENNIFER duBOIS is the author of The Last Language. Her first novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel and winner of the California Book Award for First Work of Fiction. Soon after its publication, duBois received a Whiting Award and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Award. Her second novel, Cartwheel, was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award and the winner of the Housatonic Book Award. And her third novel, The Spectators, was a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship and a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Stanford University Stegner Fellowship, duBois teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University. She lives in Austin. Follow her on Twitter at @jennifer_dubois.