This year, I sought literature that reverberated with tenderness and rage. Reading afforded me much-needed quietude and pockets of silence in these increasingly fascist times, amidst a relentless, raucous political commentary that we can’t afford to turn off. We can’t afford ignorance, but we do still need spaces to dream, to reimagine the world, to counter erasures of stories we deserve and need to know, the ones omitted from the dominant culture’s record. As writers, we write ourselves and the stories we never saw ourselves in, the stories that are the most terrifying to tell. I craved intimate work that took me to subterranean, secret, otherworldly, historic, ancient, and syncretic corners of literature, where borders and identities dissolved into hybrid forms. I wanted to read work that made me feel connected to my body, my senses, and collective memories.
I Lalla, the utterances of 14th-century Kashmiri mystic poet Lal Ded, translated by poet and translator Ranjit Hoskote, were a portal into another time, when a rebellious woman renounced her family duties to become a devotee—and yet, I read this work in the context of the present-day political turmoil not only in India-occupied Kashmir but throughout India, where student protestors are being violently beaten and tear gassed by the police because of their opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which will allow the Indian government to send people without paperwork to detention camps. Reading Lal Ded today, each line is as much a wound as it is a balm.
I revisited iconic feminist works that have never felt more prescient, including Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa, which interrogates the U.S.-Mexico border: the history of white supremacist imperialism and indigenous genocide, feminist theory, and femme divine mythologies. Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive documented the heartbreaking dissolution of a family on a road trip across these desert borderlands, and I ached the entire book through, holding its heart—the children savagely separated from their parents at the border—close to my own. Another spectacular novel set in the desert, The Other Americans by Laila Lalami, masterfully weaves a polyphonic tapestry of narrators sharply divided by race, religion, class, desire, and aspirations, unfurling the story of a Moroccan immigrant killed in a hit-and-run. Imagining a Muslim family’s tragedy in the Mojave Desert felt like a necessary complement—one that I’ve never read before—to the post-9/11 literature set in New York City. Lalami’s structure summoned another masterful work of art, Kurosawa’s Rashomon. I loved how both of these novels draw the desertscape, in all of its solitude and endlessness and metaphors. Desertscape forms over millions of years, a steady denuding of the earth into monochromatic wasteland, where everything is wildly alive, but camouflaged, in plain sight.
Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments opened a radical door of perception into early 20th-century black women’s intimacy as revolution, how their love and queerness and kinship was the heart of their survivorship against societal and state violence. Femme in Public, a poetry collection by ALOK, a nonbinary transfemme poet, performance artist, educator, and cultural theorist, probes the urgent question that I find myself wondering every time I show up to the page: What feminine part of yourself did you have to destroy in order to survive in this world? Each poem is a dart of truth puncturing the systemic, colonial violence of the gender binary, one of the first ways we learn to erase ourselves.
After Toni Morrison’s passing, I read her collected essays and speeches, The Source of Self-Regard, each night before bed, unmoored by the breadth and brilliance of her mind. Her nonfiction is a clarion light that has never felt more eternal, and it made me want to read her fictive masterpiece Beloved, for which I made a perfume (for an event in her honor) composed of notes in the book: sweet grass, salt water, rose, and blood cedar. There is no other writer who threads the olfactory with such elegant and devastating precision. Similarly, Arundhati Roy’s collected nonfiction My Seditious Heart reignited my blaze for her intellectual fire and activism and infinitely readable voice—and the collection illuminates her decades-long commitment to freedom and social justice. This work is a nonfictional journey between her two great works of fiction, The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House is a heart-wrenching, hybrid work that moved me to my core as a survivor. Over the years, I’ve learned that there is no greater feeling of solidarity than being able to bear witness to another survivor’s experience, and in the wake of so many public reckonings with abusers, to read a work that goes inward so inventively was a total wonder. When I think of how I learned to read and write, healing or holding space for trauma were not a part of the writer’s project, but the old rules don’t seem to matter as much to me anymore, we cannot afford to hold our tongues. Fariha Róisìn’s poetry collection How to Cure a Ghost bares and bears everything, and it felt like I’d found a book waiting for me my whole life, a way of seeing that reflects the world as I’ve lived in it, as a Bangladeshi, brown, bodied, Muslim femme person.
Poetry and essay are both forms that Hanif Abdurraquib renders with such elegant melancholy and beautiful rhythm, and I loved his poetry collection A Fortune for Your Disaster, as well as his essay series on the Paris Review, Notes on Pop, about songs and memory. My last book for the year will be published in 2020, My Baby First Birthday, a poetry collection by Jenny Zhang. It’s a radiant and resolute work that had me questioning everything, like what life means when you didn’t ask to be born; how we must translate ourselves for whiteness and patriarchy through our trauma, which can feel like selling ourselves out when we are never replenished by a system that asks us to sacrifice so much. And yet, these poems are a soothsaying for the future we want to live in, where we understand the innate beauty of our planet, of ourselves, our friendships, where we forgive our own transgressions, remembering to stay tilted towards the light.
Sitting in an undergraduate Chicanx/Latinx Literature course, about seven years ago, is the first time that I heard Gloria Anzaldúa’s name. I was studying under another queer Latina poet named Griselda Suarez. Griselda was part of Las Guayabas, a queer latina poetry collective based out of Long Beach, California. Other members of this collective included Myriam Gurba and tatiana de la tierra.
At the time of studying under Griselda, I knew hardly any latinx poets, never mind a group of queer latina poets. Griselda quickly became a mentor and a refuge to me. She let me know about places for latinx poets online like La Bloga and Acentos. She told me about queer literary organizations like Lambda Literary. It is because of Griselda that I was able to discover other queer latinx literary figures, first by following her and then by following the works of her friends. I remember sitting at the Floricanto Literary Festival at USC while tatiana de la tierra was still alive, and hearing her shake maracas and sing her poem “Pintame una mujer peligrosa.” Her voice then chanting “cha, cha, cha.”
I remember sitting in
the audience of Viento y Agua coffeehouse in Long Beach listening to queer punk
chicana prose from Myriam Gurba. There is a story about her, quesadillas, and
grilled cheese that I am trying to recall. There is a punchline that I’m trying
to recall, but can’t. I was so awed to see my identity reflected in these
women, to know that I had a literary community that preceded me and that I
could write from their lineages.
Before knowing about Las Guayabas, my initial understandings of the Southern California literary scene were through the drunk and sexist Meat School of Charles Bukowski and friends. Growing up outside Los Angeles, I felt like only I could only be a poet if I were writing about baseball and beer. Las Guayabas was one of the first ways that I was able to see myself and learn about the writings of queer latinxs that came before me, like Gloria Anzaldúa.
In that undergraduate Chicanx/Latinx Literature course, Griselda assigned to the class Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” from the book Borderlands/La Frontera (Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987). We spoke about code-switching, bilingual education, migration and assimilation. This essay “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” is one that I taught years later, while at NYU. This is an essay that I yearned to tattoo onto my body, especially where Anzaldúa writes, “wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut out.”
Anzaldúa was the
first literary pathway for me to discuss and understand what it means to be
writing in English, Spanish, Spanglish. She wrote in that essay about the
various tongues that we speak in, how we accommodate the dominant tongues and
ideologies around us, what tongues are viewed as illegitimate.
In the following years, I would continue turning to Anzaldúa’s poetry, theoretical, and editorial work to find myself. She is often known for being the co-editor, with Cherríe Moraga, of the groundbreaking anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1981). This anthology included many queer poets of color such as Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Cheryl Clarke, and more. This anthology was one of the foremost inspirations to me when I put together my own anthology, Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color, which spans nearly 100 years of queer of color literary history.
In This Bridge Called My Back, Anzaldúa published an open letter called “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers.” In this letter she compels other women of color to continue writing, while explaining her own reasons for coming to the page. Anzaldúa says:
Why am I compelled to write? Because the writing saves me from this complacency I fear… I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you. To become more intimate with myself and you. To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To dispel the myths that I am a mad prophet or a poor suffering soul. To convince myself that I am worthy and that what I have to say is not a pile of shit… Finally I write because I’m scared of writing but I’m more scared of not writing.
The final line of this excerpt, “I’m more scared of not writing,” shakes me awake. It reminds me of all that is at stake for women of color, and queers of color, when we do not speak up about the realities we are living in. Excerpt after excerpt, I find myself more and more encouraged by Anzaldúa to produce literature, to speak up in an unassimilated tongue. I keep thinking too, about the relationship between Marxist movements in the 1970s and how they intersected with women of color movements led by collectives such as the Combahee River Collective during that time frame as well. I am trying to better understand the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist and transnational coalition building work that women of color were doing during those decades.
As a sequel to This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Anzaldúa co-edited This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation (Routledge, 2002) with AnaLouise Keating many years later. This subsequent anthology was published two years before Anzaldúa passed away in 2004.
This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation is an anthology of feminist discourse written across genres and by people of various races and genders. For the preface Anzaldúa wrote an essay called “(Un)natural bridges, (Un)safe spaces” in which she spoke of the Nahuatl word “Nepantla.” In describing this word, she wrote:
Bridges span liminal (threshold) spaces between worlds, spaces I call nepantla, a Nahuatl word meaning tierra entre medio. Transformations occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries. Nepantla es tierra desconocida, and living in this liminal zone means being in a constant state of displacement–an uncomfortable, even alarming feeling. Most of us dwell in nepantla so much of the time it’s become a sort of “home.” Though this state links us to other ideas, people, and worlds, we feel threatened by these new connections and the change they engender.
The first years that I pondered this quote by Anzaldúa, I felt attracted to her definition of the word “Nepantla.” The feeling of transience and displacement and ever shifting boundaries that the word “Nepantla” can hold, as defined by Anzaldúa, allowed a method for me to understand my race, gender, and sexuality. I was better able to see how my relationship to my identity shifted according to the various contexts that I was in. In more recent years, I have began to question this essay by Anzaldúa, both of our usages of the word “Nepantla,” and also her ideas around mestizaje. This questioning of her work is done with great respect, understanding that even in her own lifetime she framed and then reframed her own ideas. I view Anzaldúa’s work not as flawless or full of absolute truths but more so as a process of continual intellectual exploration, field blazing in an ever changing landscape. Her work is brave and vital to the continued development of the political analysis put forth so many social justice movements that I currently affiliate with.
Almost 15 years since her passing, the legacy of Gloria Anzaldúa lives on. She has passed down so many tools for us queer poets of color to better understand ourselves. The reverberations of her of work and life continue to be felt throughout feminist discourse, literary criticism, ethnic studies classrooms, the streets of protests, coffeehouse poetry readings, and in the Nepantla anthology, where I and other poets honor her influence.
Earlier this year, I read several great books on migration, borders, and identity-making in the United States: Valeria Luiselli’s powerful and riveting Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, which follows Central American refugee children as their cases are heard in federal immigration court in New York; Francisco Cantú’s quiet and disturbing The Line Becomes A River, a memoir of the four years he spent as a Border Patrol agent in the Southwest; and Gloria Anzaldúa’s classic Borderlands/La Frontera, which brilliantly blends memoir, poetry, and critical analysis and offers an original view of hybrid culture at the border. These books deepened my understanding of the border experience—an experience I share with millions of others—and gave me valuable context for interpreting the current administration’s disastrous immigration policies.
Much of my energy in the spring was consumed with line edits for my new novel. I’ve always found this to be a very delicate time, when I’m finally finished with the writing, yet not quite ready to let go of the book yet. So whenever I needed a break, I picked up trusty old favorites like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Toni Morrison’s Jazz or Thornton Wilder’s A Bridge of San Luis Rey and read a few pages at a time.
Later in the year, I read and greatly admired Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which explores how war is lived and remembered—or misremembered—by Vietnamese and American people. I read Terese Marie Mailhot’s gut-wrenching memoir Heart Berries in one sitting and thought about it for days afterward. I also loved Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a deeply affecting book that I wanted to read again immediately after I finished it.
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The way I usually tell it is that I met Jordy Rosenberg outside Cafe Express in Provincetown in 1994, we immediately got into a fight about queer theory versus Marxism, we didn’t speak again until the following summer, and we’ve been friends ever since. Now, in a startling and barely believable plot twist, we’ve both come out with debut novels in the past year: Jordy’s Confessions of the Fox (One World, 2018) and my Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (Rescue, 2017), each of which has been described as “picaresque,” each of which is as queer and trans as possible. At the time of this conversation, we lived in the same apartment building in Northampton, Massachusetts, but by the time you read this, we will have moved into what we have been calling the “queer commune.” Below, we attempt to make sense of this trajectory. —Andrea Lawlor
Andrea Lawlor: When we first met—maybe 25 years ago?—we were students (well, you were a grad student) and we talked about science fiction and queer books constantly. Now you’re a scholar, a tenured professor with a monograph about capitalism and religious passion in 18th-century literature. But of course, that whole time, you were also writing fiction … I remember an early novel draft that had lesbian ghosts, is that right? Can you talk about your path to writing this novel, Confessions of the Fox, while also having another career?
Jordy Rosenberg: It was 24 years ago, and we were both working food service jobs in Provincetown for the summer. Actually, you were working food service while also party-promoting at the Crown and Anchor. What was your night called? Was it called Boots? I remember one flyer for it which had the word “BOOTS” written in bold, and lots of xeroxed cutout photos of boots.
AL: The night was called Pussy Galore. I am tempted to go through boxes and send you that exact flyer.
JR: No need. I have that flyer committed to memory. That flyer really, really spoke to me.
But the main point here is that I will go to any Lawlor parties I’m invited to—then and now, whether it involves boots or science fiction or being novelists or … whatever. When we met I was just applying to graduate school and I was really in love with critical theory and philosophy. I wanted to write fiction too, but novel-writing felt to me like a comparatively tremendous gamble compared to academia. A large part of that had to do with queerness and having a difficult relationship with my family where I didn’t receive a lot of support. It was a different time, and the tenure system was more intact then, so I just gravitated toward prioritizing academia, while also writing novels on the side. I also think maybe I had developed a kind of asceticism that I associate with my relationship to queerness at that time—like I was allowed to have my queerness, but I would have to give up some other pleasure or gratification maybe? I think fiction writing is what I decided I had to sacrifice for the sake of sex, if that makes sense.
AL: Oof. Yes. That actually makes total sense.
JR: Anyway, over the course of 18 or so years, I was writing and then throwing away novels for not being good enough. Being a published author of fiction just didn’t seem like a dream I was allowed to have (or keep). Finally I committed to Confessions. But wow it took a while.
To go back to you and the party-promoting and our mutual love of science fiction, can you talk a bit about your own path to writing Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl? I’ve known you through all of it, but we haven’t really talked much about the journey itself, which maybe makes sense because these things only seem to take on a narrative arc once there is the arrival of a kind of endpoint.
AL: I know! We know everything and nothing about each other’s writing life. It was ages before you let me read Confessions, and then when I finally read a draft, what was so surprising and compelling is how much of yourself you’d brought to it—in the footnotes of course but also in the form of the novel, and in Jack’s character. It’s funny to read a roman à clef when you maybe have the clef.
JR: Good one. You do have the clef.
AL: To answer your question, though, as you well know, I didn’t start writing in earnest until I was 30. I’d made zines and written a little Chandler/Joey slash (did you ever read that?) but nothing else up to that point. My girlfriend, who was in film school at the time, basically said, “Why are you in that soul-crushing job? You’re a writer.” And I thought, if she can go to film school, I can at least try writing a story. I took a night class at Gotham with Carter Sickels and, not long after, took an unpaid leave of absence from the soul-crushing job, got laid off, and got on unemployment—the second-most important thing that happened to me as a writer (the first being my girlfriend’s encouragement). I had a story I wanted to tell about young queers with slightly boring superpowers but had no idea how to start. I began to re-write Greek myths for practice, just stealing the plots, and in my attempt to retell the story of Tiresias, I wrote what became the opening section of Paul.
Later I was in grad school, and Samuel R. Delany, my teacher, said, “I think you’re not done with Paul.” So again, I listened to good advice, and I began to try to figure out what Paul would do next. The Tiresias story fell away fairly quickly, and then I was adrift. I tried outlining, tried to understand three-act structure, tried to impose a plot, but kept coming back to my sense that I just needed to follow Paul, that my structure was going to have to be a little queer as well. I finished a draft of the novel as my MFA thesis at UMass (and you were down the hall, professing!) and then sent that out to some very kind agents, one of whom suggested I try to amp up the tension, find more conflicts. I dutifully excavated what I thought was pretty solid three-act structure, but wasn’t able, ultimately, to write a book in which Paul “learns a lesson.” This agent was really sweet about it and said to send him my next book. I ended up doubling down on a more episodic structure because I realized my reluctance had to do with my understanding of how people change, how I’ve changed—really slowly, recursively, making the same mistakes over and over. I was incredibly lucky to know the wonderful Hilary Plum and Zach Savich, who edit the Open Prose series at Rescue Press and encouraged me to submit. Hilary is a phenomenal editor—gentle but incisive—and she pushed me many times but always in order to help me make the book I was trying to write. And now it’s out! Hard to believe. You also have worked with an amazing editor, to whom you’ve dedicated your book! What’s that relationship been like?
JR: First of all, I did not read the Chandler/Joey slash. I’m sorry about that. Are you mad? Do you still have it? I’ll totally read it now.
Anyway. I totally get what you’re saying about the ways in which sometimes the process of trying to get literary representation can reinforce certain conventions about what a novel is “supposed” to look like. I, too, find this a kind of baffling and often artificial directive. In my case, it wasn’t so much the departure from genre that posed challenges but the way in which I was maybe trying to combine and multiply genres. Confessions is based in research I did on primary source documents about the 18th century’s most notorious prison-break artist: a real person named Jack Sheppard. What I’d noticed about that archival material was that it repeatedly presented Jack as very genderqueer—he was generally described as very lithe and effeminate and impossibly sexy. I came to feel that this genderqueer sexiness was a way for writers at the time to conceptualize the appeal of a life lived outside of the regular rhythms of the capitalist workday. So for example, because Jack was so irresistible, he’d recruit others into a life of crime. Or, his gender queerness was a way to account for how his prison breaks were possible: He was just so flexible and tiny that he was able to wriggle free of prison walls. I wanted to run with this connection I found in the archives between gender queerness and hatred of/escape from capitalism, and sort of literalize it as an explicitly fictional—actually almost science fictional—trans origin story.
My amazing editors, Victory Matsui and Chris Jackson, were really essential to all of this. The book is a thriller, but an experimental kind of thriller with a number of parallel plotlines intersecting and weaving through each other. Victory and Chris were a genius team at not only exploding and recomposing these elements of narrative structure, voice, and tone, but also thinking through all of this alongside a number of other questions around trans representation, writing queer and trans sex, and the histories of racialization, imperialism, and the prison system. My relationship to One World became easily the most important and most intimate working relationship of my life.
I have a question for you about formal experimentation along these lines. One of the most fascinating elements of your novel, to me, has to do with its incorporation and remixing of what has become a really dominant trend in contemporary writing—the blending of theory and fiction. You can think of Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts as a good example of this, but there are others. Paul Preciado’s Testo-Junkie is another that people may be familiar with, but this practice is perhaps best exemplified in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands. I see Paul as a new twist on what has been a very queer and feminist genre of blending theory and fiction. But rather than annotating your own text with theoretical elements that lie outside of the plot structure of the novel, you incorporate them into the plot of the text in a way that highlights the characters’ (and the author’s?) desire for theory—and at the same time, you destabilize the authority of that theory.
So for example, there’s this moment where Paul and Jane are talking, and Paul tunes out for a second to think about some questions to do with gender and femininity, and when he tunes back in he’s missed something Jane was saying: “He had not been paying attention to the correct thing, in this case Jane’s disquisition on wanting-to-be vs. wanting-to-do, which as it turned out when he made her repeat her point had something to do with Barthes’ distinction between a readerly and a writerly text.” So you’re incorporating theory into the narrative flow of the novel and kind of (could we say?) performing this readerly vs. writerly text distinction (or confounding it) by withholding the actual Barthes quote and surrounding it with the characters’ desire for and disregard of the theory in itself. Do you want to talk a little more about how you felt the book engaged with this scene of queer theory in the ’90s, and how you thought about writing about that?
AL: I haven’t thought about this at all, and yet when you explain myself to me, I think you must be right—I did do that smart thing you said I did! As you can see, Paul did not fall far from this tree. OK, but seriously—I don’t think of myself as writing with the intention of engaging with critical theory. Critical theory was a hugely formative part of my life, starting in the early ’90s. I had many questions for which I thought critical theory, specifically queer theory, had the answers. Like many young people encountering such thought, I read in a frenzy of excitement and despair. I tried so hard to read Gender Trouble on my own, for instance (if only I’d had your beautiful essay “Reading Gender Trouble on Mother’s Day” way back then!). I understood maybe a 10th of the Butler or Barthes or Foucault I was reading, but it didn’t matter. I wanted always to be around other queers and other seekers, and the world of queer theory was a world of queer seekers. My heroes were academics—as you may remember, I went so far as to make a Judith Butler fanzine, which I then left laying around casually to impress girls. That was what I knew of being young and queer in 1993, and so that’s what I gave to Paul. It’s been a huge relief to me in my life to realize I don’t have to produce theory—that I can be grateful for the work of scholars and critics without having to participate in that work. I’ve been procrastinating this very email exchange (written from one floor above you) because I forget I don’t have to write like an academic. And because I’ve been excited about the way you think for almost 25 years of friendship and always want to live up to that.
JR: Well speaking of living up to, I remember that Judith Butler fanzine (titled Judy! for those readers who want to peek at this magnificence) took my breath away back in 1993. You saw something about the way that queer theory was becoming this object of desire—and also the way that queer street politics were taking shape as a theoretical field that got disciplined in and by and through the academy. I had just graduated from all those years of college where I was supposed to meet people I connected with intellectually, but I didn’t meet anyone whose brain compelled me as much as yours did until that year we were both working in P-town.
Over at Ploughshares, Daniel Peña traces a parallel between Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Gloria Anzaldúa’s hybrid text Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. As he puts it, “To separate Anzaldúa from the larger canon (and subsequently from those books she influenced) is to ignore her contribution to American literature. It’s to say she doesn’t belong in that kind of highbrow conversation, which she so obviously does—even Nelson acknowledges that she does.”