Xanthi Barker was born in North London, where she lives today. Her short fiction has been published widely. One Thing is her first book.
The Momus Questionnaire was created by musician Nick Currie, and is designed to identify the aspects of the subject’s personality which give them a positive self-image, or ‘subcultural capital’.
Have you rebelled against someone else’s dreary expectations of your life, and become something more unexpected?
When I first left university I found it hard to get a job and ended up working as a waitress. I liked it, I got to walk around, talk to people, watch all these strangers’ evenings. And I had time in the day to write. My mum wasn’t so keen. When I told her I wanted to be a writer, she was pretty pissed off and told me I was going to be a ‘do-nothing’ and waste my life. Maybe she planned it, but that was like an automatic electric shock anytime I procrastinated for the next ten years. I didn’t do nothing — I wrote a lot and worked a lot and saved up for and completed a masters degree in the evenings and actually the other day I said to my mum that I was feeling exhausted and she said, ‘For god’s sake Xanthi, why do you have to be so good all the time? Be a bit bad for once. Stop trying so hard.’ She makes me laugh so much. She’s always one step ahead, you see.
What in your life can you point to and say, like Frankie, ‘I Did It My Way’?
I pronounce the second ‘e’ in vegetables, like veg-a-tables. A lot of people have a problem with this but it’s there and it sounds better and I’m going to keep doing it.
What creative achievements are you most proud of?
I spent the last six months writing a lot about my (dead) dad — all this stuff from childhood I half-remembered, stories I’d been telling or thinking about for years — and when I’ve gone over it, not always but sometimes, it’s as though I can hear him speak again, or see him there in what I’ve written, or remember moments I thought I’d forgotten, that I must’ve found my way back to through writing. I like those parts because they feel like something from outside, like he’s actually there. And even though a lot of what I’m writing should be bleak — cancer, alcoholism, adultery, and so on — at some points I’m just sitting there grinning, because it’s as though he’s right there in the room with me.
If there was one event in your life which really shaped you, made you the person you are today, what would it be?
Does getting anxious count as an event? I’m going to make this a new Frankie moment and decide that it is. It’s a daily event in my life, anyway. My oldest friend teases me that I worry about things that haven’t even occurred to other people. It takes over my internal monologue and most of the time I hate it — think of all the brain power I’ve wasted worrying about things I can’t even remember now. I’ve felt anxious as long as I remember, and it’s always there, especially in social situations. It’s like a constant shaking, or this little creature poking at you going, ‘what about…? why did you…? are you sure? oh my god did you just?’ But it forces you to think and to try to understand your feelings, to imagine other people’s feelings and to ask questions, to try and get better. It’s like an exaggerated empathy button, because most of the time I’m anxiously trying to imagine what other people are feeling. But all that stuff is good for writing — plus the fact you have a lot of time to write if you’re too anxious to sleep.
If you had to make a rap song boasting about your irresistible charm and sexiness, how would you describe yourself?
I’m not very tall but I can break an apple in half with my hands — is that sexy? Otherwise my secondary school English teacher once called me ‘charmingly lazy’ and an ex-boyfriend said my charm was deceptive while my current boyfriend says my bad table manners are the sexiest thing about me — can I make all that rhyme somehow?
Have you ever made material sacrifices because of your integrity?
The first time I had a ten pound note I was really excited, and then I found my mum in a panic because we were so broke. I did my best impression of typeface and wrote a fake letter saying she’d won £10 in a beauty contest and taped my tenner in there, drew a stamp and shoved it through the letterbox. She did such a good act of thinking it was real, I had no idea until years later she suspected me. I just remember feeling sick in case I was found out.
Describe a public personality who exemplifies everything you’d like to be yourself, then another public personality who incarnates everything you’d least like to be.
The time I saw Deborah Levy give a reading I thought, You are fucking brilliant. She was so strange and thoughtful, kind of majestic but completely unassuming, like she knew something that was making her laugh a little bit, making all the absurd things in life make sense, and if you really wanted to know, she’d tell you. That kind of generosity and warmth, that’s it. Least like to be… I saw some videos of Dominic Raab the other day, that was pretty nauseating — anyone who speaks without thinking, refuses feelings, denies empathy, insists we’re autonomous, isolated entities instead of messy furless interdependent creatures of emotion, that’s not where I want to be.
If you were an Egyptian pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?
A piece of obsidian my dad gave me — he called it an obsidian dagger, which is a weapon from a children’s story he wrote, but it doesn’t look that dangerous. I’m not exactly into stones and their meanings but I looked it up recently and obsidian is all about metamorphosing painful experiences, transforming emotional wreckage — that sounds like a good tool for the next world. Also an ichthus necklace I got from my mum to keep things balanced. I wouldn’t mind a lock of hair each from all the people I love — or a hand print, some physical reminder. Plus some pencils and paper and a jar of Marmite, please.
Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?
It’s kind of an extended joke and also a quotation but I like Ali Smith’s 15th Century Renaissance painter Francesca del Cossa’s constant reminder that they are ‘just saying’. I love the understatement of it, given that this whole other world is being created with this ‘just saying’, all these feelings and characters. You’re never ‘just saying’ but setting off a whole chain of reactions. Which reminds me of another favourite proverb/quote from my dad. He liked to say ‘people are psychoactive substances’ which is a fancy way of saying people affect you, what they say gets inside you and changes you, even in tiny doses.
What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?
They may or may not be my favourites, but they’re on my mind since I heard an interview with him on the radio the other day — Bruce Gilden’s portraits in Only God Can Judge Me and Face. His portraits are shocking, troubling, upsetting, also controversial (Sean O’Hagan calls them ‘dehumanising’ in The Guardian, which makes me wonder what narrow vision of humans he has). They show what a lot of people try hard not to see. Even if the privatised body surveillance system of constant social media photo and video sharing wants to pretend that we do, this is reality, these are people, we’re all humans and we don’t all look a certain way.
One Thing published by (Open Pen) will be launched tonight (28/03) at Stoke Newington Bookshop, London.