Talking Shop(girls) with Kate Zambreno

September 11, 2014 • Culture

First published in 2011, Kate Zambreno’s book Green Girl tells the story of Ruth, a young American shopgirl in London. In between offering celebrity perfume samples and ruminating on the world of retail, Ruth seeks to make sense of herself and her image in all of London’s reflective surfaces: shop windows, beauty compact mirrors, and the constant gaze of others. We talked to Zambreno about the inner monologue of a shop girl, the films that inspired the novel, and the role of make-up in a woman’s life.

Retail is a crucial part of Green Girl, where it’s often draining and repetitive. What do you think working retail and watching shoppers reveals about people? 

I was really curious about the inner life of a shopgirl, and I’ve been one myself. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf says that women writers should write the “girl behind the counter.” The shopgirl isn’t assumed to have an inner monologue, and of course she does. To shoppers, she’s just the anonymous shopgirl, who must get things for them and please them, but she watches and sees so many interactions take place.

There are so many instances in the novel where Ruth, or someone she sees, is applying makeup as a way of changing identities. After she gets her makeup done she is given a guide on paper for re-creating her look and you describe it as if Ruth was carrying away a literal, different face. What do you think a woman’s beauty routine, her visual choices, says about her, if it says anything? 

Everything and nothing? In Green Girl I was playing a lot with the language of fashion magazines, and fragrance ads, and cosmetics, which really dictate that these choices, so often by trends and seasonal, make someone’s identity. I think it’s important to critique the ways consumer desire is constructed, or how women are made to feel flawed, so they need to cover up these flaws elaborately—but I think it’s also possible to be aware of this, while also choosing to wear makeup and follow a routine. Knowing it’s a choice and not a choice, like so much stuff in society.

Why are women reluctant to reveal that they put in effort into their visual appearance, and why is there a backlash against women who do use a lot of makeup?

It all comes off as pretty judgmental and anti-femininity, I think, as if wearing makeup is overly vain or frivolous. I used to feel it too—that as a feminist I shouldn’t wear makeup or care about style or fashion or how I look. I mean, being overly obsessive with one’s appearance, or worried if you don’t look perfect, out of insecurity, is not the healthiest thing. But I think it’s also the product of our culture. Here in New York City, there can be wild and amazing and risk-taking street fashion, but a lot of people who seem to carefully curate themselves end up looking like everyone else, and I think that’s boring. I think people of all genders should wear as much or as little makeup as they want, and do what they want with their face or their body, or their hair. To me the most beautiful people are the ones who are confident in their appearance, whether it’s a changing costume or basic uniform. And that can be very minimal, or quite ornate. The most beautiful images I’ve seen lately are these YouTube videos of underground drag performers, like the extraordinary late Ethyl Eichelberger, and those wonderful photographs of Ethyl shot by Peter Hujar.

Reneé Falconetti in  La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc

 There’s a point in the story when Ruth cuts her hair very short impulsively and you reference that when Mia Farrow cut her hair, it was deemed a sort of “mythical suicide.” Why do you think hair is so important to people in identifying and constructing (or, rejecting, à la Joan of Arc) femininity?

That image of Reneé Falconetti as Joan of Arc in the black-and-white silent Dreyer film repeats in a lot of my work—it’s really haunting to me. Joan of Arc’s cutting of her hair is very much a queer act; she was punished, sent to death, partially for wearing men’s clothes. Ruth’s act in Green Girl is some sort of refusal, an attempt at a rebellion, but then of course she is seen as quite Seberg-gamine after the haircut, and she in fact is miming Jean Seberg. I don’t know why hair is so important in identifying and constructing femininity—but it definitely is.

Green Girl is written as if you were directing a film, with quotes from Repulsion and Bonjour Tristesse scattered throughout, camera angles and zoom-ins identified, etc. What prompted you to write Green Girl in this way, always evoking the eye of a film camera? 

Ruth was inspired in some ways by the Hollywood starlet, who always feels watched, and then I wanted to write of a young woman who felt eyes were always watching her, who was an actress in the film of her life, who feels like a character in a film. Ruth is also a foreigner, an American in London, which I think is even more of a doubled consciousness, like her awareness others are looking at her.

Which films inspired you when writing Green Girl?

So many! Probably most the French New Wave. Definitely Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, about a day in a life of a pop star, played by Corinne Marchand, who walks around Paris, worried she has cancer. Apparently in the ’80s Madonna wanted to remake it (I read that somewhere). That film was especially inspiring because it takes the kind of character that you think of as the girlfriend role, or the silly, spoiled role, and makes her the antiheroine. It’s really about her malaise and her feelings of discomfort at being alone, while also being quite playful. The entire early filmography of Catherine Deneuve—her films inspire my characters too. (At one point Agnes and Ruth dress up as the sisters in The Young Girls of Rochefort, played by real-life sisters Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac.)

Still from Cleo from 5 to 7

Ruth seems to be always trying to dissect her feelings and her desires so she can really find “herself,” looking to others for influence and inspiration, not knowing exactly why she does what she does even when it distresses her. Do you relate or have related to Ruth at all in this quest?

She is my character, so I definitely related to her, or I wouldn’t have been able to write her. I think Ruth is trying to find herself, but I think she is also really drawn to lose herself, to escape the burden of being herself.

How and when does one go about constructing a solid identity as a young person?

I think the goals of literature and life are probably different. When I was a young person I always felt uncertain, unsure of myself, constructing my identity through others—but I think that’s part of the process. I don’t know if we ever get a solid identity, to be honest. Maybe a more solid identity.


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