What’s more intimate than being yourself? Prior to reading Jenny Fran Davis‘s Dykette, I wasn’t sure. I’m still not. But I can say this deeply smart, original, and funny debut novel has permanently shifted my understanding of the relationship between honesty and performance.
Performance is, after all, the most revealing choice our narrator, Sasha, makes as she spends 10 days with her partner, Jesse, and two other queer couples at a lavish vacation home in Hudson, New York. Everyone’s performance is under surveillance by the others queers in the house as they all seek escape from the city—and the escalating dramas they’re hoping to leave behind.
In Dykette, Davis asks us to give hyperfemininity—its glamor and excess—the same respect traditionally reserved for the subdued macho prose of white Western masculinity.
I chatted with Davis about her time at the Iowa workshop, writing about place from a distance, and the performance that is inherent to all narrative.
Marissa Higgins: You’re a lifelong New Yorker, but you did your MFA at Iowa on a nonfiction track. How did Iowa impact your writing?
Jenny Fran Davis: It’s hard to tell if it was the influence of the program or just having three funded years to write. Plus the constant feedback from my MFA cohort. I definitely feel like setting an intention to be focused on developing a writing practice and writing community really ended up shaping my writing. I think it made me a better writer overall.
MH: Dykette is very New York-y. What was it like writing about it while far from home?
JFD: It’s easier to write about a place when you have a little bit of distance from it, as opposed to being so entrenched. Being in a place that’s pretty still and quiet, where there’s not so much activity, gave me a clarity about other places I’ve lived and people I knew.
MH: Is Dykette autofiction?
JFD: I would solidly say it’s fiction in the sense that it’s really most from the imagination. Its origins are in the real world and real things that I’ve seen, experience felt, thought about, but then really taken apart and combined into into a pretty solidly fictional narrative.
MH: Iowa has a reputation for being intense. How was it for you?
JFD: It’s so funny you’ve heard it was all cutthroat and harsh! I probably thought that too. In reality, being there and knowing these are the people that you’re with in the middle of nowhere, it can result in an insular and gossipy situation, and some people definitely had that experience, but I had the experience of treating the people I was with as less disposable than you might in a big city where there’s always someone new. If you make an enemy, you know you’ll see that person at least three times a week! These are your community members so you treat people with a little bit more grace.
MH: You were sort of “canceled” online for your essay “High Femme Camp Antics” published by the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2020. Did this experience at all inspire the “cancellations” that take place in the book?
JFD: It was definitely an influence. But I think the backlash metabolizes for Sasha in one way and I—Jenny as a person—experienced it differently. Sasha’s backlash is unique to her; the experiences I’ve had don’t feel like a one-to-one of hers. But I think going upstate in the wake of the backlash sets the book up to be concerned with what the characters see, feel, smell touch, experience in real life. It establishes characters in the realm of the experiential world at hand, not just online. I think it’s as much a narrative device as it was a transcription of whatever minor internet controversy was spinning around that essay.
MH: In Dykette, you show us being “canceled” in two different generational experiences, with both Sasha and Miranda. How did you work that out on the page?
JFD: I definitely was working out the generational difference of the panic that ensues when you realize that people online are mad at you. For Miranda—I mean, she’s a therapist! So this becomes an all-consuming thing for her. We see her pretty distracted and concerned about something. We’re not sure about what—it’s all murky. No one will just explain like Why are people mad at Miranda? What did she say? I also think the sketchiness of what’s transpired definitely adds to the tension. I think then finally seeing Miranda not being able to take all of this anxiety, and a little bit of self-righteousness, and confusion about what’s going on, she acts out in a pretty wild way.
MH: How does social class show up in this book?
JFD: It’s interesting to think about these characters and their class, clout, power, prestige, influence. We don’t know the extent to which any of these people are from wealthy families or how accustomed they are to the luxuries they currently have. I think that murkiness comes up when the younger couple is sort of like: Wait, how much money do you guys actually have? And how long have you had these things? How hard will I have to work to get these things? Are we all starting from a similar place or are we severely mismatched? What exists beyond the 10 days of the book is pretty limited. How the characters deliberately portray themselves becomes almost as important as the material circumstances of their lives, past and present.
MH: Performance and how we portray ourselves feels so important to all of the characters in this book. What were you interrogating about performance while writing?
JFD: Performance is the founding attitude of the book. I think the role of performance in a nonfiction context is almost louder for me. I feel that I’ve like performed on the page in everything I’ve written; maybe even more so when it feels like it’s supposed to be true, or it’s supposed to really come from life in a pretty literal way. Most interesting to me is the framework of gender—feminine performance and a masculine performance. What it means to perform each of those modes. But also the ease with which we see the feminine as a performance always. But masculinity somehow feels always real or serious.
Is performance always disingenuous? Can you perform something, but also really mean it? Can performance be aligned with sincerity? With Sasha, when she is so overly performative, she really feels a lot of the things she’s simultaneously “pretending” to feel. There’s an intense vulnerability in performance.