Amina Cain’s “Indelicacy” Reflects on Liberation from Societal Expectations

If you read a bare-bones synopsis of Amina Cain’s novel, Indelicacy, you may come away feeling like you’ve read the story before: a writer decides to leave her husband and pursue her dream. However, the brilliance of Indelicacy is in the honest, timeless, and deeply reflective way it tells this story.

Cain’s use of detail — or lack thereof — adds a mystery to the novel that serves to highlight what is truly important while cloaking the rest in a pleasant fog. You forget that you don’t know the husband’s name, or that you can’t quite pinpoint what era the story takes place in. What we might consider being the main details of the narrator’s life fall to the peripheral and fascination takes the forefront as she consumes art with voracity and grows as a writer.

I recently spoke with Cain about the creative decisions that led to Indelicacy and how the narrator’s journey reflects liberation from societal expectations. We also discussed her own views on what makes a great writer, and unsurprisingly, fascination makes another appearance.

Let’s start at the beginning. What about this story was the first to materialize in your mind? Was it a particular character, setting, or scene? Was there a certain moment in your own life that initiated this story?

These things flashed through my mind when I first started thinking about Indelicacy: a date farm, tapered candles, the character Vitória from Claire Lispector’s novel The Apple in the Dark, a museum, an image of a woman cleaning, mountains, shop windows. I didn’t know at first the significance of these objects and images and scenes, or how or even if I might work with them (some of them in the end became more concrete than others), but they were what emerged first. No moments from my own life came though that early on, but certainly what I felt fascinated by did. 

This novel isn’t explicitly rooted in a certain time period. Was this choice obvious from the beginning of your writing process? How do you think this influences the way a reader experiences the work?

In a way, yes. When I started to work on it, I paid a lot of attention to things like atmosphere, and to the objects that were presenting themselves to me, and I let them shape a sense of time more than trying to construct an actual or realistic time. I wasn’t sure at first how a reader would receive this, if I was luxuriating in something that wouldn’t translate or cross over. A book club at Librairie St-Henri Books in Montreal recently read Indelicacy, and one of its members told me of the wildly different times/places it conjured for its readers: timeless Poland, 1950s South America, 1890s Chicago, 1900s London. I was pleased by that. I want the book to exist for readers both in and outside of time.

Vitória’s husband disapproves of her being a writer, believing it to be unnecessary and strange. He also believes that women should provide comfort – and children – and that his wife is strange for providing neither. How are Vitória’s choice to live freely as a writer and her choice to leave the patriarchal expectations of marriage intertwined?

They are very intertwined. In a sense the book is all about freedom—the freedom to write, to be who you are on your own terms, to say and act how you actually feel, to spend your time with those you love best, to experience the world in an open way, to push off oppressive systems, namely around class and gender. Each kind of freedom is important and necessary, and if even one is ignored, Vitória is not totally free.

Your book is often an ode to and an honest depiction of the writing process. What do you think is the most important practice a writer can take on? What do you think is the most important quality for a writer to possess?

For me, the most important quality is fascination—to be fascinated enough with something that if you don’t write about it you will be unsatisfied. I think you also have to be fascinated with the process of writing. Meaning, even if it’s hard, you are compelled to return to it again and again. If you can write every day, great. If you can’t, that’s actually okay too. Sometimes I write every day; sometimes I don’t. I am always coming back to it, though. I think of it as the eternal return, and for me that is enough.

Before Indelicacy, you published two collections of short fiction, Creature and I Go To Some Hollow. How did writing a novel differ from writing short fiction? What inspired the genre shift?

It was challenging! Especially at first. I had never spent so much time in one world before.  Luckily it got easier. What helped was that I wanted to experience that kind of immersion. I was tired of starting new things; I wanted to stay in something for a while. I’m sure, though, that I’ll want to write short stories again. 

Fostering a mutual love for art and sharing that art is evident in both your novel and in your life’s work, as you’ve headed literary festivals like When Does It Or You Begin? and Both Sides and The Center. Do you have any tips for creative people that may want to foster the same kind of community with other creatives?

It’s been a while since I’ve done this kind of work, but I loved it, and found it fulfilling. Both festivals were grounded in the literary, but included performance, film/video, and installation, which gave me another way to help put writing and art in conversation with each other. I couldn’t have done either without Jennifer Karmin and Teresa Carmody, respectively, with whom I co-curated the festivals, and to whom I felt creatively connected. In both cases, we got somewhere together I don’t think we could have gotten to alone. We were also fortunate to partner with two amazing art organizations/spaces, Links Hall in Chicago and The MAK Center/Schindler House in West Hollywood. My advice is simply to find someone you connect to, that you can work well with, and to start something together. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place with various art spaces, find one, and see if you can hold an event there. Come up with something amazing. Invite amazing people to participate. 

By Amina Cain
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Published February 11, 2020