C Magazine


Issue 135

Soft Listen, Aliya Pabani interviewed by Lena Suksi
by Aliya Pabani and Lena Suksi

Aliya Pabani hosts The Imposter, a podcast affiliated with the news site and podcast network Canadaland, where she follows her curiosity to conduct memorable interviews with everyone from music producer and storyteller Jarrett Martineau, to the sister of dead Vancouver novelist Betty Lambert, to art psychic Cindy Mochizuki, alongside visual artists like Rajni Perera and Kiera Boult. On air and off she pulls stories out of people with warmth, sensitivity and keen interest. I wanted to adapt Aliya’s strategies to Aliya herself as I learned about them.

Lena Suksi: I listen to The Imposter at my part-time job. In that time, I tend to avoid podcasts, which reinforce my passivity, as opposed to other media on the web, but The Imposter is different because it’s grounded in a local cultural scene, and is affirming of surprising communities happening all around me. Could you comment on how The Imposter’s podcast format is useful for what it does?

Aliya Pabani: I think that people now often feel like they need to remove themselves from that world where you can consume any amount of information at any pace you would like. Maybe there is a new fetishization of audio storytelling because it requires certain things from you; it has constraints. A lot of the artists who listen to this show will say, “I listen all the time when I’m in my studio,” so it’s an addition to the process of thinking through one’s own creative work, or doing something possibly visual. I like to imagine scenarios where maybe someone’s taking a break, lying on the floor and listening to it before they get back to their own work.

Part of that is the intimacy of the voice. Editing has made me realize that you’re taking in information that’s about someone’s breath and someone’s nervousness, like the quivering of their voice, [their] pauses– that is also information. And that information is absent in a lot of interactive or text-based media. The thing I love about it is that it is the closest thing to human interaction, and that is a thing I’ve heard people crave in this moment: the desire to have interaction but not to get lost in too much of it, and not to have it be influenced by all these other kinds of social anxieties that one might have.

LS: You’ve spoken before about intimacy as an ethic of conversation or interviewing – acknowledging intimacy. And that would happen, you suggest, in any conversation, through having elements of a person’s trace – their voice and breath and so on. But what are other practices that you as an interviewer might have to expand the acknowledgement of intimacy?

AP: One thing is, I don’t think my insecurity presents itself as hostility to people. We all have insecurity, and mine doesn’t present itself in a way that is distancing. The way that I am told I am in the world, which is to say, open and approachable, is how I’m read as an interviewer as well.

I would also say I don’t really worry too much about seeming [like] an expert. And that isn’t something that really happens in media that often, or as often as it should. And I think there are all kinds of reasons for that – like, sometimes people actually are experts and they don’t want to dumb down their knowledge. I am lucky enough to be undertaking a thing that is not that focussed. The other thing is, I sometimes intentionally perform ignorance to bring someone out of their shell who might not be a natural radio personality. One of the things I do to draw those people out is to be almost performatively ignorant or playful in a childish or naïve way. And that is perceived as my actual identity by some listeners who want to tell me that they didn’t like it.

I was thinking about this recently in terms of costuming… I was thinking about how, sometimes, if you are a white man, you can grow your hair in a weird haircut and wear a vintage suit every day and it’s assumed that you’re putting on a performative thing, but that’s not who you are. Whereas I find with people of colour, or people who are away from that norm or de facto state, it’s often perceived as who you are, not something you are performing.

LS: So, intimacy in this context might be allowing yourself to be vulnerable in this performance of naïvety, or in finding this common ground?

AP: I might be reluctant to commit to it being fully a performance of naïvety! Maybe more just a refusal to – or not a refusal, but a desire not to perform an expertise.

LS: I think a lot of artists resist that as well, resist performing their expertise about their own work. Like, they might say that this work – which is often not language-based – should be to what people refer to understand their practice. But when you take away the pressure of communicating in a way that is not about expertise, then this is what The Imposter does well – it gives people the opportunity to give the insight that they do have. You’ve given me insight into why that is, because you’re not predetermining what someone can talk about.

AP: I’m trying not to. Also, it’s just not who I am! I’m not really a critic. I’m not formally trained in any way. I don’t have that kind of knowledge. I like that I’m given the opportunity to have a different thing, and that people like that.

LS: You’ve said that where boredom or hostility might be obstacles to finding out new information, they are less so for you. Do you have obstacles to your curiosity?

AP: One of the things that I’m sad about is when I’m in a room with someone who assumes we have similar politics. We’ll talk about politics in a way that is full of shorthand and is based on our mutual understanding, and I’m there for the conversation, but I’m also thinking in the back of my head: we can’t use this. And I can ask them to expand on things but it still might not work.

LS: So, that’s where intimacy might be a barrier.

AP: Yeah. And [it’s] one of the things I find hard to deal with, because the form of this show is very much about intimacy and openness and vulnerability, but the art world or the world of media is so…

LS: Anxious.

AP: Yeah. And there are certain conventions of this world… certain barriers that are thrown up by that world. I’ve heard enough times that people come out of the interview saying, “This isn’t what I was expecting… we talked for such a long time… I’ve never talked about this one work to this extent.” And so, if people are more guarded about that work and like to be, that can cause some friction and tension. And I find it often when people are at a state in their career where they’re starting to be seen internationally, or if they’re very established, they worry that they might say something the wrong way and people might talk about it.

LS: Because your taste isn’t narrow in some kind of specialized way, the show can be seen as a reflection of your world and your personality. So you’re making choices in the medium of conversation. I see a lack of intimate conversations about art in the public world, and I wonder if you have insight into where that might happen beyond The Imposter.

AP: The thing is, I don’t really think I talk about the art that much – my guests do – but my interest is in the contextualizing elements, which is who the person is and why they have this desire. Why this desire motivates them, what that process looks like, and I don’t see this happening in a panel discussion.

LS: Because you’re talking about not being led by expectations, but by a dynamic.

AP: In real world settings, you have this in hangouts.

LS: Yeah, but maybe not in professional contexts. Because at, say, an opening, people are guarded, and they’re guarded with one small piece of information and that’s why those settings can be frustrating.

AP: Especially since there’s a dearth of free wine.

LS: So, in professional contexts, the intimacy or the dynamic might not be there because of this problem of coming preloaded…

AP: Yeah, it feels like there [aren’t many other forums for] talking about art between a conversation you have in a social setting and an artist talk or a reading group. What is that thing I wonder?

LS: Maybe The Imposter fits there? And that mode is both dedicated and joyful.

AP: At least less structured.

LS: Less studied, because the reading group and the panel discussion are still very much concerned with expertise, whereas The Imposter is really built on the social…

AP: One of the things that feels different about The Imposter is, people sometimes ask if they can prepare or if they can have questions ahead of time, and I’ll say, “Nah, I don’t really do that.” What I like doing is creating a process of mutual discovery in an interview. And I think that has to do with the idea that everything they come with is the knowledge they need, and everything I come with is the knowledge I need. So that’s why I try not to be too well-researched. Or even if I am, the questions are not that totalizing, or it’s not that important for me to have an arc.

LS: That idea, that you have all the knowledge you need, and that they have all the knowledge they need – that idea is not universal to social interactions. Maybe that’s the skill that led you to doing this work.

AP: What do you mean?

LS: It’s political, that everyone is grounded in their space and that it’s adequate, and maybe that’s what led you to doing this work. That you can claim that for yourself and hold that in time for another person, is rare. Your area of expertise might be compassion and curiosity.

AP: It will always sound cliché, but compassion and curiosity are really such hard things to maintain. You re- ally have to create the conditions for them to be practised. And always be tending to that state. I’ve heard that I make people feel seen. And that’s one of the biggest compliments I’ve heard. When someone tells me they felt seen, that’s the ultimate for me, because it’s at once the idea that it’s so hard to feel seen, and the struggle of being human is that most of the time you don’t feel seen, and it’s an inevitability given the fact that there’s no real universal consciousness (laughs), or maybe some people believe that, but I just haven’t experienced that.

But the desire to understand others and a curiosity about others is grounded in childhood, in the feeling of being very outside and threatened by that otherness, because of the place I grew up in, which was mostly white, and people who were several generations Canadian and me feeling brown bodied and embarrassed of my origins and who I was also. And so I do feel that something I developed, which was a tactic of social survival, was the development of humour. It wasn’t some- thing that came naturally to me. It always strikes me as strange that when I think back to who I was as a kid– I really was a shy, moralistic person, and I can’t even access that in the same way anymore. And it strikes me that I can remember the points of transition, and it strikes me that they were very intentional. The recognition of humour as something I can have and will use.

LS: Humour, I think, is often a response to disillusionment.

AP: Yeah, ’cause also who are the people who practise comedy or humour? It’s a cover.

LS: It’s a cover, or it could be something else. When you say you went from being shy and moralistic to something else, I completely relate. And humour is holding that idealism. It’s often like, “Oh, I thought everyone would adhere to this principle.” But they don’t, and I still have to live with it. It could be a cover but it’s also a refusal to turn away. You still want to be engaged, but you’re appalled. You can reconcile those in the absurd, maybe.

AP: Right. Yup. It passes as socially acceptable modes of wry critique.

LS: Well, because it does put people at ease. Sarah Schulman said in an interview recently that if you call something out, you become the site of the problem. It’s so true. People don’t know how to respond, but if you use humour you make them comfortable.

AP: Right. But it registers differently.

LS: When you say people say you’re approachable, it might have to do with humour, but not exclusively, because lots of people are funny and mean.

AP: There is a sweet spot. But, yeah, the fact of conditioning myself to be someone who observes how to be for another [person], as a means of social survival or belonging, for that thing to have developed out of a feeling of exclusion, is now a useful skill to have for this job. Which is not something I was expecting.