This episode is the second in our mini-series of three episodes on the theme of empathy for writers and a really interesting and unique take on empathy, as my guest is a curator and writer of fiction, Lyndall Cain.
So, listen to Lyndall’s exploration of curation and really concrete ideas about how to find objects that build a whole world in writing and then sign-up for the workshop she will offer on Sunday, which gets even more hands-on about bringing your stories to life with objects.
You can learn more about the three workshops held in February and sign up at rachelthompson.co/workshops
As Lyndall Cain puts it in our interview, “Your characters don’t have to be the only things alive on the page.”
Listen to hear about some fascinating collections and ways to think about collections and some brilliant examples on bringing stories to life with objects.
Links and Resources from this Episode:
- Lyndall taught curation at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Capetown.
- Lyndall’s mentions student Nathalie Viruly’s “Of Matter and Meaning: A Bird’s Egg Collection” Michaelis School of Fine Art (2018) which looked at ornithologist Peter Steyn’s egg collection https://www.objectecologies.co.za/2019/university-of-cape-town/notebook-2-nest-records-mainly-eggs-in-drawer-3/
- Lyndall mentions the exhibition by Mark Dion called “Tate Thames Dig” (1999), Iziko Social History Centre as part of the Iziko Museum, The Museum of Innocence (Turkish: Masumiyet Müzesi) a novel by Orhan Pamuk
- “In the Event of My Father’s Death” by Roxane Gay
- “Who Will Greet You At Home” by Lesley Nneka Arimah
- The idea of a biography of an object was taken from “The cultural biography of things” by Igor Kopytoff which is an essay in The Social Life of Things, edited by Arjun Appadurai
- “thing theory” which came into use in 2001, in Bill Brown’s introduction to a special issue of Critical Inquiry titled ”Things”
- Learn from Lyndall at her workshop on Sunday, Feb 26. Find details on our February workshop series at https://rachelthompson.co/workshops
- Sign up for my Writerly Love Letters sent every-other week and filled with support for your writing practice.
Transcript for Write, Publish, and Shine Episode 66
Lyndall Cain, Rachel Thompson
Rachel Thompson: 00:01
Welcome luminous writers to the Write, Publish and Shine podcast. I’m your host, author and literary magazine editor Rachel Thompson. This podcast explores how to write and share your brilliant writing with the world. In each episode, we delve into specifics on how to polish and prepare your writing for publication and the journey from emerging writer to published author.
This episode is the second in our mini-series of three episodes on the same theme of empathy for writers, and a really interesting and unique take on empathy, as my guest is a curator and writer of fiction, Lyndall Cain.
So, listen to Lyndall’s exploration of curation and really concrete ideas about how to find objects that build a whole world in writing, and then sign-up for the workshop she’s going to offer on Sunday, which gets even more hands-on about bringing your stories to life with objects.
I’m such a fan of her writing, and I’m thrilled she said yes to offering this unique workshop in our community this month.
You can learn more and sign up at rachelthompson.co/workshops
As Lyndall Cain puts it in our interview,
“Your characters don’t have to be the only things alive on the page.”
Listen to hear about some fascinating collections and ways to think about collections and some brilliant examples on bringing stories to life with objects.
Welcome to the podcast, Lyndall Cain. You are a curator and you bring that discipline to your writing. What are some things you have curated that feel most significant to you?
Lyndall Cain: 01:42
That’s a hard question. I guess, that’s kind of difficult. Often, I work for institutions. So often the things as curating, I didn’t necessarily get to choose, not to say that I didn’t enjoy curating them. I just wasn’t necessarily drawn to them at first, but I think curators become curators because they’re obsessed with objects and collections in some way. I think often, there are two types of curators, either those who are hoarders and have a house full of objects, because there are just so many objects that they like, and they collect them all, or otherwise they’re minimalists, which is also an obsession with objects, because you’ve gone to the trouble of just choosing the ones you really like. So you might have a house that just has one sculpture and one delicious monster or some plant in the lounge, and that’s it. But that’s also a quite a significant choice. So for me, instead of choosing an exhibition I’ve curated, I might say more like my house or my surroundings. I think what you choose to put on display and what you choose to put in cupboards, those are quite big decisions, what you want other people to see and why.
You’re obviously trying to portray some sort of image of yourself. I’ve got quite an obsession with vintage clothes, and I have all of my everyday clothes packed away in a cupboard. And then the ones that I like, I have… Well, I like them all. But the ones that I’m proud of, I have on these jutting out rails, it’s almost like an open cabin situation. So, you can see those. And then I guess work wise, probably the thing I enjoyed most about curating was working with students on the honors’ and curatorship course that I helped teach on at the McKale School of Fine Art, and just seeing how they used objects and what they bought to the objects. We used to accept students from all different disciplines. You didn’t only have to have done art to be a curator, you could have done science, you could be curating specimens or test tubes or whatever. You could have come from an anthropology background or dance background, anything really. But because a lot of students came from all these different backgrounds and didn’t necessarily have knowledge around art history or museum history. We usually needs to start the year off taking them around the University of Cape Town and asking them to choose an object from their collection and then to think about how they would curate this.
I always found it interesting what different students did. I had one student, her name is Natalie Verulie, and she was a doula. With that in mind, she chose from one of the CT collections, there was an ornithologist, which was someone who studies birds, called Peter Steyn, and she chose some of his notebooks to curate and look into. And she came to it from the idea of… I think it was probably 17th century European tradition of white men going around and collecting objects, often just for the sake of like collecting them, or just for the sake of beauty, but all human endeavor. It was a bit of a hobby. It wasn’t necessarily for science. And she looked at the eggs under that light. So there were these books about the eggs, and then there were the eggs themselves. And she looked at how, in order to get these perfect eggs that were on display, they had to steal the nests from the birds and drain the eggs on the yolk. I thought that was a really interesting perspective.
Rachel Thompson: 05:34
I love hearing about those nests and eggs and the themes that this collector is bringing to light. I feel like that’s the kind of writing I love to read. And I would love to see a curation that’s about making those connections as well. What are some other curations that have had a big impression on you and your writing?
Lyndall Cain: 05:52
So one of the exhibitions that I find really interesting, which I haven’t actually seen, it opened in the 90s. I would have been a child and it was also in the UK. It was by Mark Diane, and it was him excavating two parts of the River Thames and then taking all of the objects he found and putting them into curation at the Tate Museum. And he categorized all the objects according to what they were. So he would have a whole bunch of ties together a whole bunch of shoes together, a whole bunch of pipes, or whatever it was that he found.
And this was quite an unusual way to categorize objects because usually one would categorize them by date, or like by some historical significance. But this was purely by their object function, which I thought was quite interesting. You can then look at a big collection of toys and you might have something from the early 90s, or the late 80s, next to something from the 1930s. They have very different histories, but they were there in the same collection. I guess it makes the audience draw their own conclusions about the objects in some way or other. That I’ve always found interesting. I remember studying that exhibition when I first did a curatorship course. Then one that I’ve seen myself, which isn’t really an exhibition, but it’s more a collection, is in Cape Town, there’s the Ziko Social History Museum. So Ziku is a branch of our national collection. So we have the Ziko National Gallery, the Ziko National Museum, and then a whole lot of things, but including the Social History Museum. And I also went there for the first time as a curatorship student and have since taken other students there. And it’s this giant building where every floor has a different collection. So, one floor, it’s just a collection of furniture.
Another floor is a collection of ceramics and porcelain. Another floor is a collection of clothing items. And they’re all these collections that have made their way to Cape Town, and then found their way into this collection, either by donation or probably less nice ways as well. And all these different cultural artifacts from so many different groups of people who have been in Cape Town. And I just thought that was really interesting. So like on the floor, that’s all ceramics. You would have pieces of ceramic from the Dutch colonizers, and also pieces of ceramics from Indigenous people, and all these different collections. And so many of them just sit in those rooms and they’re never seen, but they’ve been collected, and they’re there. And there’s also all this history around deaccessioning work. There’s so many rules and regulations that museum officials find it hard to get around, in order to give objects back to the people that they belong to. So oftentimes, they just carry on sitting in museums, even if they weren’t donated and if they were taken by this conspicuous means. And then also, just not being seen by so many people, I think it’s quite interesting.
Another interesting thing about it is that all of these objects have lost their functions. There are hundreds, if not 1000s of teacups in the one room, but nobody’s drinking tea out of them. They’re just sitting there with their reference numbers, and their category cards and things like that, which is quite interesting. I think as far as I remember, any member of the public can go and make an appointment to have a curator from the Social History Museum take them around to the collections. And if there’s a specific item they want to see, they can go and see it. But I highly doubt most of the public know that the collections exist. And they are, of course, sometimes taken out and used for exhibitions and things like that, but they’re just so many of them. I think it’s quite an interesting history around collecting. And then once all of these things are collected, what do you do with them?
Rachel Thompson: 10:10
I’m picturing all of those teacups just sitting there. And I’m curious what kind of museum you would start if you could start your own museum. What would it be about?
Lyndall Cain: 10:20
So that’s also a hard question. There’s so many things I would like to curate or have a museum of, but I did read the Museum of Innocent by Pemurke, and I was lucky enough for when I worked at the Centre for Curating the archive, which was the curatorial unit at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, I got to travel to see quite a few Biennales. One of them was the Istanbul Biennale in 2019, the end of 2019, just before COVID hit. I got to go over there and I saw the Biennale, which was great. But I also went and visited some local museums, and one of them was Museum of Innocent, which I thought was quite interesting that the writer had turned a fictional account of objects into a physical museum of objects, which I’ve always thought is pretty interesting. And throughout the book, there are a lot of descriptions of objects and objects that keep popping up. And so there’s a cabinet just of all the cigarettes that come up in the novel. And yeah, just a lot of collections of objects.
But again, it’s quite strange to see objects that only existed in a fictional world then put into physical space. Maybe I did something like that. I’m not sure.
Rachel Thompson: 11:45
Let’s talk more about how and why we should empathize with objects in our writing, Lyndall? What can this curatorial approach do for our writing?
Lyndall Cain: 11:54
I think often, objects are either made by people or belonged to people, or at least have been interacted with by people, and they mean different things to different people. The more we think about objects, and the more empathy we have for objects, the more we can understand them, or the more we can think about them in unusual ways and make unusual connections like Natalie did with the collection of eggs. Being a curator, you think about an object, you might have a collection of hats or something. And you can probably, if they’re in a museum, or somewhere, some more official institution, you might be able to trace back the provenance and figure out the history and perhaps something about the people who wore them, or the location in which they will worn. Perhaps it was very cold and rainy, or something like that. And then you can make conclusions that way. But with writing, I’m a writer of fiction. For people who write creative non-fiction, it’s probably different.
But for writers, you’re making up histories about objects, or this is I am. So you might have a desk, you could just see this as like, oh, I’m sitting at a desk. Here is this desk. The desk might just, to you, be something functional, something that you can sit at and write. But you could also think about its history, where does it come from, who made it, was it made by one person, or was it made in a factory, and it’s one of many, and perhaps it has a complex and wants to be this unique object, but it’s just not. Maybe it had some weird markings on it, like someone’s name is scratched into it, or has a wobbly leg. Where does this wobbly leg come from?
And for fiction, you can make all of that up. And it can be something that says something about the character, the person who’s sitting at this desk, or their environment. It could be if you want to have a character that’s a little bit lost in life, instead of having them drinking wine out of a crystal glass, you might have them drinking wine out of a chipped mug. And what does that little chip in that mug say about the character?
Rachel Thompson: 14:08
When you’re writing fiction how do you use objects to tell a story? (What can an object do to help tell a story? What can’t an object do to help tell a story?)
Lyndall Cain: 14:18
I use objects myself in my stories, I think, to ground my stories quite often. So, I have an object that comes through the story quite often, so you come back to the same object. I think it just helps the reader find a place in the story. I also sometimes use objects as a way for a larger theme. I have a story that is centered around a woman living in a household with multiple men, and she sort of doesn’t have much of a voice, and they all eat this beige food. She’s constantly trying to make more colorful food and the theme of food comes back in quite often.
Every time you look at this food, I think it’s what all, every time that food is described, I’m hoping that it brings up the theme again without directly stating it. But I think you can use objects to characterize people, to foreshadow, check up on the gun, you know, if you see the gun, something bad is going to happen. To bring up themes, like I said, to suggest things, and also just to move a scene. If you think about a movie, in order to transition a scene, sometimes you might have someone holding a handbag and then to get into the next scene, someone else might be picking up a bag. And it’s just like a slight similarity in image which transitions it.
Rachel Thompson: 15:37
I’m interrupting this discussion on objects and writing with Lyndall Cain, to invite you to work with Lyndall in our next workshop in our series this week.
What can an object do to help a story? What can’t an object do to help the story? They are there to guide us through transitions to tell us more about the characters that own them to provide foreshadowing and give us clues (think Chekhov and his gun), to reinforce themes, to give us glimpses into other worlds, and to bring us back into our own. This workshop will explore the role of objects in creative writing. And we will do this by trying to understand them through creating an object biography. Join us in personifying objects and objectifying people.
This workshop is offered in the pay which you can model which means you pay what you can, starting at $10 per workshop, learn more and sign up at rachelthompson.co/workshops.
Can you tell us more about how objects can help with characterization for fiction writers?
Lyndall Cain: 16:36
I was actually getting ready for the workshop. I’ve been reading through some short stories that I wanted to bring up in the workshop. And one of the ones I was reading was in the event of my father’s death by Roxane Gay. And I thought she uses objects in that story quite interestingly to characterize the people in it. So she says, Theresa would make us grilled cheese sandwiches or corn dogs, and tater tarts or some other appropriately white trash meal.
Then the three of us would watch more television, sometimes a movie. Around nine, they would turn in for the night and I would lie on the couch staring out the small window, listening to the laughing and grunting and ass slapping and heavy breathing, hoping my mother was having an affair with the guy from the hardware store or one of the deacons from the Church. We went home late on Sunday evening and my mother was always waiting with a home cooked meal. My father handed her flowers we picked up at the grocery store and kissed her on the cheek. Theresa is the woman that the protagonist’s father is having an affair with. I thought, she’s making grilled cheese sandwiches or corn dogs and tater tarts. Then it’s contrasted with the mother making a home cooked Sunday meal. Just those food objects are also quite interesting. Then even the father handing her flowers, we picked at the grocery store. Not flowers that were picked somewhere in nature or bought from a flower store, anything like that, just a last-minute thought. I think more often than not, I use objects to characterize the people that they belong to.
I think that Roxane Gay’s story does what I hope to do~~. I had something else. Sorry, I forgot about it. It was on my next stage. Sorry, Mellie. ~~ I’ve also been thinking about how I’ve seen objects in art. When I was growing up, I guess I mainly thought art was about people. But then the more art history I studied and saw, the more I began to see the same thing in art. There are these objects that are standing in for the people in the painting. With religious paintings and the Renaissance, every flower has some different symbolic meaning. With Barak paintings, you have these vanitas, like skulls and flowers that represent death and vanity. And then I did this course at university on early 1900s and late 1800s art. And we looked quite extensively at Victorian art. And then I did some research about Victorian decorations and the lifestyle in general. And they were obsessed with objects. I mean, it was the Industrial Revolution. So previous to that, only really upper-class people could afford fancy decorations like nice baths, and things like that. Then with the Industrial Revolution, more middle class people began to afford those sorts of objects.
It changed the way people thought about objects. You had this design reform, which was really against the plastic mass produced objects and began to think like, the more clutter you had in the house, the more immoral you were because you’re trying to hide things. And if you had a Vase in the shape of a fish instead of just a Vars. There was a Vars, you were also lying and there was something secretive going on there. And the pre Raphelite art as well. There’s this painting by William Holman Hunt called the awakening conscience. And it has all of these symbols in it. It’s about, again, a man and his mistress. And there’s a bowl of tangled wool underneath the piano where she’s sitting. And that’s meant to represent the tangled weave and the tangled knot of her life and the immorality of it all. And I think the Victorians were probably a little bit too over the top with all of these things. But it is interesting to think that the way we use objects in fiction can be mirrored to some extent, or is mirrored to some extent in art. Again, when I was working at the Michaelis School of Fine Art.
Rachel Thompson: 20:36
What are some of your favorite examples of writing that personifies objects and objectifies people?
Lyndall Cain: 20:42
I used to teach a workshop with my friend and colleague, Bungani Khunner. And we together… So again, because a lot of students came from different backgrounds, you might have some students coming from finance who hadn’t necessarily written a lot before, and even students who come from a more Bachelor of Art side of things, they might not have written curatorially. And we wanted to explore ways of writing curatorial statements that weren’t so dry. So we did a workshop with them on thinking about objects and other ways of writing them. We included some academic writing, and then we also included fictional pieces. I remember the one year we had three short stories and we needed a fourth one and I couldn’t think of anything. I asked Bungani, and he recommended Hulugreechie at Home by Lesley Nieker Oreemur, which I had never read before. I remember reading it for the first time before we gave it to the students and I loved it so much. That was about I think that was probably about in about 2017 or maybe 2018. But anyway, I think about it a lot, that particular story and the ways that the babies that the…
If you read it, it’s about women. There are no men in the story, which is also interesting. But women, in order to have children, have to make them from objects. And if you use gold, you’ll have a very, I guess, fancy rich child. And if you use straw less so. So, you’re trying to get these materials, these high end materials to make a special child. And I thought that was really interesting. The protagonist, she eventually collects hair from some of the clients at the hairdresser’s where she works. And it’s like luxurious hair that she uses to make her baby. But then the baby needs to be fed, and it feeds on the back of her neck. And I thought that was also interesting because the babies are being made from objects, and then the mothers are being… The protagonist’s energy is literally being sucked from her to give life to this object baby. And the protagonist is doing a lot of… This is my reading of the story. The protagonist is doing a lot of this in order to impress her own mother, who looks down on her and who doesn’t think she’s worthy of having one of these more…
I keep using the word fancy, but it sounds weird to call a baby fancy, but one of these babies made from higher end materials.
Rachel Thompson: 23:16
Oh, I love your reading of the story and now I want to read it. I should remind our listeners that all of the wonderful references you’re making throughout our interview will be listed in the show notes for this episode and this is episode 66.
Do you think there can be both benefits and downsides to empathy when it comes to fiction writing?
Lyndall Cain: 23:36
Well, I’m not sure about empathy in fiction writing, but I’m thinking about perhaps getting too much into the weeds with objects could get a little bit too cutesy, perhaps, or bug you down in detail. In terms of having too much empathy… Being empathetic isn’t just writing emotional characters. It’s more than that. I think it’s understanding the emotions of the characters, and you can understand the emotion of your character without writing that emotion of the character. I think it comes out in other ways. I think if you’re being quite didactic and saying exactly how your character feels at every turn, then perhaps that is too much. But if you have the right to know what it is, perhaps it will come out in more subtle ways, or perhaps you could use objects to show how the characters are feeling or what the world around them is feeling.
I hope there’s quite a strong materiality to my writing. I have been criticised before about not having enough description of actual settings of where the characters are, but I think I’m less likely to describe a room in a location in terms of its feel or its description.
I wouldn’t say the characters in a desolate, quiet street with a galing wind or that thing. I’m more likely to just ignore the elements around them and say, I have a character who’s standing on a street and there’s an abandoned milk carton doing a cartwheel across her path or something like that. I like to think that the work is quite material, although I don’t think it quite works for everyone because I know some readers like to know where they situated and I’m not too good at doing that. But I’ve just finished, I use the term finished literally because I feel like you never quite finish, but a story about a woman who gets texts from her grandmother from beyond the grave. And so I guess in that sense, the phone itself is a key object because it’s the one bringing her these messages from her dead grandmother. The phone’s… Each message from her grandmother is a clue that leads her to an object. Each of the objects bring about a memory from her childhood or her past family life with her mother and her brother. For example, one object is a sprinkler, which makes her think about a summer when they were quite a poor family and all of her brother’s friends were going to the beach, or the pool and they couldn’t do that.
So she set up a sprinkler in the garden for them to run through. Yeah, and that thing. I started writing this long before I knew about this workshop. I wasn’t consciously thinking about objects. But then when you asked me this question, I was like, I guess there are very specific objects in my stories that I haven’t necessarily thought of before.
Rachel Thompson: 26:37
Can you tell us a bit about the workshop that you’ll be offering next Sunday on the empathetic object? What do you hope writers will take away from the experience?
Lyndall Cain: 26:46
I’m hoping that writers will want to use objects more, maybe use people less, or at least use objects to think about their characters more. Your characters don’t have to be the only thing alive on the page. The objects can come alive and they can actually tell you more, I think. And they can be a less didactic way of giving description. You don’t have to say, This character is bad and this character is good. You could say something like, This character owns 10 plastic handbags from Amazon, and this other character owns one tapestry hand bag from a thrift shop, and then the reader can decide what they think of that. Not that all of these object things have to be so moralistic or judgmental. That’s just one that came into my head. But yeah, I guess my little tag line for the workshop was that I want to personify objects and objectify people.
The best way I can think of doing that is using objects to stand in for the people or the characters. All right. Sure. Again, when I was a student, I read a piece of writing called The Social Life of Things. It’s like, yeah, The Social Life of Things by a Padre, which looked at objects as having a very specific biography, but more in terms of social history rather than curating, but where objects have come from, what their provenance is. And then another seminal reading I did was Things of Sing Theory by Bill Brown that looks at when an object becomes a thing. He states that once an object loses its original function, it becomes a thing. I guess if you break… It has to be, I think, through human intervention. If you break an object, then it becomes a thing. Or if you use a plate no longer as a plate, but you decide to hang it on your wall for decoration, then that becomes a thing. I guess going on a Polarized… There’s a chapter in the book that looks at an object biography. I wanted to take some of that and then twist it into a more creative writing approach where we look at objects and write about them from perhaps their perspective, or almost like an autobiography of an object, and just in order to gain an understanding of what the object sees or what the object experiences.
And I thought perhaps that could help people think about objects in new ways. And again, creative non-fiction writers are welcome. Also, so poets and writers of fiction. So you could take an object and completely make up its biography. It doesn’t have to be real in any way. So yeah, I want to explore that.
Rachel Thompson: 29:20
Thank you so much, Lyndall.
Join the Writerly Love community this month for a hands-on craft reading workshop on the Empathetic Object this Sunday.
Learn more and sign up at rachelthompson.co/workshops
So, that was my conversation with Lyndall Cain a wonderful writer and luminous member of our writing community.
All the books and things (objects!) mentioned in this episode can be found in our show notes up at rachelthompson.co/podcast/66 (this is episode 66)
I think it comes across in this episode how enthusiastic and insightful Lyndall is about fiction and writing objects that reflect the characters and worlds in your writing. I hope you’ll join us on Sunday for her workshop, The Empathetic Object. Her write up for the workshop reads.
What can an object do to help a story? What can’t an object do to help a story? They are there to guide us through transitions, to tell us more about the characters that own them, to provide foreshadowing and give us clues (think Chekhov and his gun), to reinforce themes, to give us glimpses into other worlds, and to bring us back into our own. This workshop will explore the role of objects in creative writing. We will do this by trying to understand them through creating an object biography. Join us in personifying objects and objectifying people.
The Write, Publish, and Shine podcast is brought to you by me, Rachel Thompson. Meli Walker co-produced this episode and I’m grateful for her support and help with recording Lyndall. Thanks, Meli!
You can learn more about the work I do to help writers, write, publish, and shine at rachelthompson.co. When you’re there, sign up for my Writerly Love letters, sent every-other week and sometimes more often, and filled with support for your writing practice.
If this episode encouraged you to curate your own collection or introduce new objects in your writing, I would love to hear all about it. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please tell other luminous writers about this episode. You can do this by sending them to the podcast at rachelthompson.co/podcast or searching for Write, Publish, and Shine wherever they get their podcasts.
Thank you for listening—I encourage you to embrace empathy and interrogate it, too!
Lyndall Cain: 31:48
Hi, I’m Lyndall Cain, my pronouns are she her and hers and I am from Cape Town, South Africa, the traditional land of the clients and people.
Rachel Thompson: 32:04
And my co-producer for the episode, Meli Walker shares her land acknowledgement, too.
I am a guest in the South Sinai, Egypt, on lands historically and presently occupied by the el Muzzina Bedouin.