Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge Classics)

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Jordy Rosenberg and Andrea Lawlor on Exploding Narrative Structure and Theory Posturing

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.

Beyond Binaries: On ‘Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids’

Growing up, parenthood wasn’t central to my fantasies of adult life — but it wasn’t in opposition to them, either. By the time I was in my 20s and working as a bookseller and writing, and then going to graduate school and then getting married, and still writing, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have kids. But when I turned 29, the urge to be a mother arrived, and it was so powerful it embarrassed me. Baby Fever! I had it! It wasn’t so much that I made a decision as the decision was made for me, by my body. Thankfully, my husband thought it was a good idea. A year later, there we were: someone’s mother and father.

There are some parents who feel that parenting is their vocation, the central reason for their existence. I don’t feel that way. Raising my son is an important and beautiful facet of my life, but it’s not the only one. Maybe that’s because the desire to have a child came upon me suddenly, almost by surprise, or maybe it’s because I already have a vocation, writing, which took hold of me long ago. Despite my biological imperative, I’m certain I would have still lived a fulfilling life had I not had my child. For me, that makes parenting all the more pleasurable and meaningful. It wasn’t the only path of fulfillment and happiness I saw before me, and it’s never felt like some destined part of my identity, and yet, I chose it. I choose it every day.

The truth is, sometimes my childless self shadows me as I kiss my son’s soft, impossibly milk-pale neck, or when I’m answering one of his big questions (“Why do we have to die, Mama?”), or when we’re kneeling on the sidewalk inspecting a potato bug with the focus of portrait painters. That self is there for the shitty stuff too: when I fail to control my voice as I tell my son, for the sixth time, to get dressed for school already, or when all I want in this world is for him to go to bed so that my husband and I can have the evening to ourselves. My childless self is alternately bereft and relieved at the path not taken. My son has taught me so much about the world, myself, and the human animal in general, but to have decided not to do something — well, that would have taught me something too, wouldn’t it?

Both of my selves, the real one with a kid and imagined one without, read Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum, which offers a diverse array of personal experiences despite the commonality of subject. Daum writes in her introduction, “I wanted to lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against non-parents and assumes the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income.” That’s refreshing for this reader, who’s a parent but who also has no trouble identifying with non-parents; though we might come to different decisions (to become parents or not), we still worry and ponder and project in similar ways. Or maybe not: for example, compare Geoff Dyer’s witty opening, “I’ve had only two ambitions in life: to put on weight (it’s not going to happen) and never to have children (which, so far, I’ve achieved”), with Kate Christensen’s more sobering, “I don’t have kids, and I’m very glad I don’t, although there was a time when I wanted them more than anything.” The anthology’s variation in tone proves that, like those with children, the childless aren’t some monolithic group with identical motives.

As a mother, I found comfort in Laura Kipnis’s essay, “Maternal Instincts,” which puts parenting in its historical context. Kipnis reminds us that the maternal bond is a fairly recent social invention, writing: “No one ever talked about such bonding before the rise of industrialization, when wage labor first became an option for women.” Sigrid Nunez echoes this sentiment in “The Most Important Thing,” describing her upbringing: “When I think of the people among who I grew up, it’s as if I were looking back not fifty but more than a hundred years, to an era before modern belief in the sacredness of childhood and children’s rights had emerged, before childhood had come to be seen as a time of innocence deserving protection, the part of every person’s life that should be carefree and full of fun.” It’s not that I don’t believe in the preciousness of childhood or the maternal bond — I’m a woman of my era, after all — but it’s liberating to recognize that many of my essential behaviors are learned, just as it was liberating to read Gender Trouble by Judith Butler in college and question the naturalness of my female identity. Such recognition and questioning gives me the freedom to be whatever and whomever I want; it also, in the context of parenting, lets me share with my husband the tasks and responsibilities of child rearing without feeling like I’m any less of a mother. (If I had a penny for every time a person asks me, somewhat alarmed, “Where’s your son?” when I’m out doing a reading, I’d have at least a dollar by now…) It also keeps me from expecting myself to feel a certain way about parenthood: that I should love this part of it, or complain about that part of it, an endless list of shoulds that doesn’t make me a better, more present mother.

Within days of my son’s birth, people kept asking me if I was in love with my baby, if I felt a love greater than anything I had ever known, etc., etc. They expected my answer to be a resounding yes, and it didn’t feel like there was room for another kind of answer. “Sheesh,” I would say instead, “I only just met the guy.” In fact, many of my mother-friends have reported their love for their babies with a mixture of manic delight and intense relief. (Relief, that is, that one isn’t a monster, as feared, but a true, rightful mother.) Laura Kipnis reminds us of the pernicious political and social consequences of perpetrating the “natural” myth: “What’s the most advantageous story to adopt about female biology and nature? If we keep telling the one about nature speaking to women in a direct hookup from womb to brain, then guess what? This will parlay into who should do the social job of child rearing and under what conditions.” The cultural pressure we place on all women to want and have babies has a negative impact on those women who do end up having kids, and we are foolish to forget it.

The essays I enjoyed most in the anthology used the theme of childlessness to talk about something else. The first in the collection, “Babes in the Woods” by Courtney Hodell, depicts the author’s meaningful relationship with her brother, only 11 months older. She writes of their “private mythology of brother and sister as two faces of a coin” and describes how her own sense of self shifted when he became a dad. While she fears she’s “a kind of human geode: sparkly and hollow,” she is surprised to discover that her brother is a natural father. “How was he allowed to be different from me?” she asks. We’ve all been close to someone, and we’ve all asked ourselves this.

In “Just An Aunt” Elliott Holt is honest about her struggles with depression, and writes, “The fact that I don’t have kids is less the result of a decision than a collapse.” She’s referring to a deep depression she fell into at age 36, just when she would have had to make parenthood a priority; Holt uses that dark period to think back to other moments of depression and personal anguish and how that’s influenced her decision to remain childless. Holt is clear-eyed about herself and her struggles, and there is courage in admitting, “if I have another debilitating depression, I won’t endanger any kids.” Her spare style and her voice, at once confident and vulnerable, moved me.

In “The New Rhoda” Paul Lisicky writes, “In a not-so-distant past, men like me often died in their twenties and thirties.” His essay brilliantly glances at the anthology topic on its way to documenting what sex, life, and death meant for a gay man in the 1980s, and what it means to him now:

Imagine it. Look at a drop of your blood, your semen, your saliva, and think of it containing a thousand little grenades. Not just for you, but for the lover you came into intimate contact with. How could your life change? Could you ever disappear into yourself, your skin again? When you finally got the nerve to be tested, and found out that you did not carry those grenades, could you still think of that fluid as a substance you’d choose to make a baby with? Imagine it.

One does not feel exactly undead after being dead for so long.

This essay knocked me flat. As with Holt’s, I loved its honesty: “I thought I could imagine what it could be like to be in my straight male friends’ skin, to be swept and stopped by some beautiful woman as she walks down the street. But the sexual allure of reproduction? Really?” A sentence later, he isn’t afraid to assert difference: “I’ve never been more alien from the men I thought I’d known.”

In the end, though, what most fascinated me about this anthology was how certain some contributors were that parenthood would have kept them from writing. For her essay, “Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later,” Lionel Shriver interviews another childless mother who says, “Had I had children, I would have written no books, nor would I have become a particularly successful journalist.” Sigrid Nunez, in her essay “The Most Important Thing,” quotes Jeanette Winterson in an interview she gave in 1997: “I can’t find a model, a female literary model who did the work she wanted to do and led an ordinary heterosexual life and had children.” Sigrid also quotes an interview with Alice Munro, in which Munro regrets batting her young daughter away from the typewriter. A couple of pages later, Nunez asks herself:

Can I be the kind of mother I would have wanted to have? Just give them lots and lots of love — oh, this I believed I could do. But I also believed that writing had saved my life and that if I could not write, I would die. And so long as this was true, and so long as writing continued to be the enormously difficult thing it has always been for me, I didn’t think I could be a real mother. Not the kind I would have wanted for my child. The kind to whom he or she was the most important thing, object of that unconditional love for which I had desperately yearned as a child myself and the want of which I have never gotten over.

I had a different childhood than Nunez, which makes a big difference, for I never went into motherhood with the expectation of total devotion, and I never placed before myself an either/or choice: writing or parenthood. I do think it’s possible to love your child unconditionally, and to also care deeply about one’s artistic pursuits. They aren’t mutually exclusive. (And I doubt that Alice Munro’s daughter holds a grudge against her mother!) For me, at least, there are quite a few female literary models to look to for support and guidance.

In “The Hardest Art” Rosemary Mahoney chronicles the anxiety she experienced upon becoming pregnant from artificial insemination and the feelings of inadequacies that took over. She quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife Sophia’s rules for good child rearing: “Infinite patience, infinite tenderness, infinite magnanimity — no less will do, and we must practise them as far as finite power will allow.” Finite power is right, people! Sheesh, is anyone, anyone at all, capable under this exacting rubric? (Also, do we need to be taking such ye olden parenting advice? I feel like Laura Kipnis would have something to say about this!) In her essay, Mahoney is wonderfully self-aware about her own faults, but I bristled when she pronounced, “The one who brings a child into the world has a responsibility to give the child everything, to put the child before all else.” This, to me, sounds like a kid talking, and in some ways it is, for the smart and thoughtful writers in this anthology speak not only as artists, but also from the experience of being children. Many of them still retain the specific longings and resentments of that role. Perhaps Danielle Henderson is most up-front about this in her essay “Save Yourself” when she writes, “I decided to take the love I’d have for a child and give it to myself.”

This occasional motif of parenthood-as-complete-devotion isn’t a flaw of the anthology because it got me thinking a lot about why I made the choice to have a kid, and how my role as a mother has shaped my writing life, how it’s both energized and limited it. As Jeanne Safer writes in her essay, “there is nobody alive who is not lacking anything — no mother, no nonmother, no man. The perfect life does not and never will exist, and to assert otherwise perpetuates a pernicious fantasy: that it’s possible to live without regrets. Every important choice has benefits and its deficits.” It’s this kind of open-minded honesty that will move the topic away from its limiting us versus them binaries.

Emailing about this very subject, a friend recently asked me, “Doesn’t anyone bumble around, scared and uncertain about the future? Doesn’t time just sometimes pass? Isn’t everyone just doing their best? Isn’t everyone scared? Isn’t everyone worried about meaninglessness?” After finishing Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, and after living my own life, I can say with conviction: Yes. We all do. I’m happy to have the company.

(And, now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pick my son up from school.)

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