Monday, September 25, 2017

On Best American, Transphobia, and Literary Editing

Thanks for taking the time to chat, Gabrielle Bellot and Berry Grass. First, a little bit of context for readers who are unfamiliar.

The Winter, 2016, issue of The Antioch Review featured an essay titled “The Sacred Androgen” by the writer Daniel Harris, which attacks trans people. The essay is blatantly misogynistic, white supremacist, and transphobic. It is filled with inaccurate information and hateful stereotypes, and it fails all of the academic and editorial standards we would hope to find in place from a leading university literary magazine. We won’t waste time recapping all of the many problems with the essay, which is awful writing, but for readers who are interested, a few good summaries can be found here, here, and here.

A large number of writers, editors, and publishers came together to unequivocally reject this essay, the hate it contains, and the clear breach of ethical and academic standards that its publication entails. Just recently, however, the latest Best American Essays came out, and the Antioch Review issue was listed as a “Notable Issue” (the writer, Daniel Harris, also had a different essay from the year listed as notable). Listing this issue as notable praises the editors, redeems their decision, and sends the clear message not only that publishing such hateful material is acceptable, but admirable. This flies directly in the face of the outcry from so many writers, and is only one particularly egregious example of hate and discrimination against trans people within literary publishing.

Gabrielle, when the issue first came out, I really appreciated your piece on Medium, which not only put the editorial decisions of the publication in a larger context, but also articulated the importance of the backlash, and the power of seeing a wide range of writers use their voices to condemn hate against trans people. Could you respond some to how you see this citation by Robert Atwan and Best American, and how it fits in this broader context?

And related to that, Berry, I first noticed the notable citation because you posted about it on social media. Could you articulate what it was like coming across that, and what message it sends?

Gabrielle: When I was in grad school, the various Best American categories were often hailed as just that: the best of said genre of said year, worthy of being taught in workshop courses alongside established and up-and-coming writers alike. Of course, “best” is inherently subjective, if not somewhat silly, when it comes to the vastness of these categories, and the Sherman Alexie affair in 2015--when Alexie was editing Best American Poetry and decided to choose a poem by ‘Yi-Fen Chou,’ a penname by the now-notorious white poet Michael Derrick Hudson, who was writing in yellowface--made the arbitrariness of the editorial process all the more overt. (There is also, of course, as Alexie pointed out, at least a bit of nepotism.) But what Best American chooses retains political and literary clout, and to see the entire issue in which Harris’ essay appeared garner a “Notable” mention is disappointing, if unsurprisingly so.

Harris’ essay was no minor, forgettable fragment in some otherwise elegant, epochal collection; au contraire, it almost immediately became the issue’s defining essay. Without Harris’ ignominious, inarticulate essay, this would likely just have been an unspectacular issue of a respected literary magazine; with Harris’ piece, it became a cause celebre that ended up, briefly, in the national news media.

Therefore, to highlight the entire issue without thinking of Harris--who, at any rate, should not be on any list in any category of “best” authors, given his weakness as a writer, even on a sentence level-- is impossible, cannot be editorial oversight, except to the utterly oblivious.

But, perhaps, ‘oblivious’ is an apposite word. Mr. Atwan indeed seems quite oblivious. Transphobia is still so often quietly swept under the rug as people wait for the ‘real’ dirt to appear. For Simon & Schuster, crude, callous transphobia wasn’t enough to prevent or cut short a lucrative book deal with a former Breitbart writer. For this issue of Best American, transphobia isn’t real enough to seem like anything other than a ‘notable’ issue, a hot topic, a trendy controversy. In other words, we, as trans people, weren’t real enough; we were topics rather than individuals. If anything, Harris’ hateful, reductive, erroneous views got him into The Antioch Review in the first place.

I will grant that the notorious issue of The Antioch Review was notable in this larger, cultural, human sense--but not in a way we should praise, which a mention by Best American implicitly does. It was ‘notable,’ instead, as a mistake, at best, and as marketing transphobia from a self-loathing gay man--not Mr. Yiannopoulos, but rather Mr. Harris, who shares much in common with the former, and both of whom The Antioch Review might have been happy to endorse.

The Best American’s mention may seem trivial, small--and, in some ways, it is--but what it represents is big: the way ‘debating’ our ‘right’ to be ourselves is still so frequently regarded not merely as acceptable, but as something to be outright encouraged as a means to stir up ‘controversy.’ That someone happily endorses essays crudely dehumanising us reveals how little they humanised us to begin with. Would an issue of The Antioch Review that asked a ‘controversial’ question about whether non-whites like me have lower IQs also receive a ‘Notable’ mention? Perhaps, but it would also be less likely--and this says much about how much less we, too, are thought of by people like Mr. Atwan, likely without Mr. Atwan even caring enough about us to realise it.

Berry:  If you follow a lot of essayists on social media then you are bound to notice the enthusiasm with which they look forward to the Notable Essays section of the BAE each year. & I do too, totally! Seeing your friends or peers receive a small but meaningful bit of national recognition is rewarding. Seeing a journal that you love get recognition, or friends in editing get recognition is rewarding.

So my literal experience of coming across The Antioch Review’s special recognition -- for an issue so flawed that more than 1,000 writers signed their names in condemnation of the editorial practices leading to its publication -- was one of abrupt displacement. I came into the Amazon preview from a positive space, excited to celebrate members of my broader writing community, & I was abruptly thrown into a negative space.

Maybe it’s the closeness (which is to say smallness) of the essayist community, but Best American Essays seems to me to have more clout than other similar large annual anthologies do with writers of their genres & subgenres. & that’s the crux of why The Antioch Review’s recognition here hurts me: I mean it when I say community. The NonfictionNOW conference-attending, the “Essaying the 21st Century” Facebook group-posting, writers-and-editors-frequently-dialoguing-with-each-other community looked attentively over those Notable selections & folks didn’t notice that Daniel Harris was recognized in two different ways, despite a lot of those community members signing that open letter unambiguously condemning The Antioch Review. Even after I shared this discovery across social media platforms (again: community. Folks saw my post b/c we all follow each other)

Robert Atwan’s editorial decision to recognize Harris & TAR in this way feels awful of course, but as a trans writer I’ve long come to expect awful from big national platforms. I think I was more disappointed by the lack of response -- of memory! -- from cis essayists, whose concern months ago strikes me (now, but also for awhile, increasingly) as shallow.

Clutch: I think a lot about that initial response, too, and the way the Best American kind of sucks the power out of the response, or at least feels like it does. I continue to be annoyed that I am forced to have feelings about The Antioch Review, but letting the issue receive praise without a clear and loud criticism of it is also unacceptable. Maybe I just want people to understand that this actually hurts people, that it damages the people I love and our cultures and our communities, and that it’s not just an abstract exercise in representation or something.

Berry, you brought up that open letter in response to the issue, and we should give credit here to Oliver Baez Bendorf, who did so much of that legwork.

So another part of the problem, as I see it, is that anthologies and editors and academic gatekeepers and all of that continue to demonstrate that they are ill-equipped to understand the work produced by so many trans writers. So even while the nonfiction literary world on large has the same boring arguments about truth or writing about family, for example, we can find this dynamic range of trans writers radically re-writing our understanding of selfhood, of truth, of representation, all that kind of stuff. And this isn’t an exclusively trans concern-- literary establishments continue to miss out on the work of marginalized and oppressed people in part because that writing so often offers critiques and revisions to some of our fundamental ideas about genre, writing processes, craft, all that.

If we’re going to say that places like Best American are failing so many writers, what’s the alternative? We could let go of the idea of a “best,” that seems important, but where else are we finding good work by trans writers and other writers left out of the mainstream conversation? If Robert Atwan and the Antioch Review aren’t going to get their shit together, where else do we turn?

Berry: The alternative is probably a lot of things, right?, rather than looking for another one-stop-shopping experience for recognition. Because while it would be kind of awesome if there was a single repository website of trans writing that updates weekly, say, with links to newly published work from trans writers, the problem becomes how do you make that comprehensive enough so that people aren’t excluded, or so that what is shared doesn’t skew towards a more narrow aesthetic, or etc. It’d be amazing for getting trans writing to the eyes of trans audiences (any audience, really), & is by virtue of its one-stop simplicity the likeliest idea to get “mainstream” attention,  but difficult to pull off. Just last night I saw the Poetry Foundation put out a list of contemporary Latinx poets that was pretty long but also left out a great many, many blazingly talented Latinx writers & the conversation around the list was then deservedly about who was left off, and about the limitations of the perspectives of the list-makers. Then of course the other flaw with that idea is that cisgender editors would by & large feel very comfortable with that repository site being the only place where promotion & reviews/criticism & etc. of trans writing would take place, & they’d abdicate their responsibilities in favor of that one site picking it all up. I guess with any single anthology or resource you run the very real risk of leaving voices out of the conversation.

Maybe part of the answer is to talk, frequently, about the literary journals that are regularly publishing trans writers? Like, The Wanderer needs to be shouted from the veritable literary rooftops for the magazine that it is -- no one else is putting out work from such diverse voices. I see writing there that I truly wouldn’t see elsewhere. Frankly it’s rare that there’s more than one trans writer in a single issue of a literary journal. Trans-centered journals like Vetch are a wonderful antidote for this, but so are journals whose editors actually seek out trans voices beyond just typing out a Facebook post encouraging submissions from certain demographics. The Tiny just put out an issue with 4 trans writers, and that shouldn’t have been astonishing to me but it was.

I’m a genre editor for an online journal & even I have tons of work to do by way of seeking out trans writers. Maybe if there were more trans people on the mastheads of journals things would improve. I guess I’m getting away from your question, Clutch, but these things are sort of connected for me. I wonder what it is about small press publishing & about university-affiliated publishing that seems so resistant to trans inclusivity.

Gabrielle: I second what Berry said. Projects like The Wanderer and Vetch are beautiful and important, creating spaces for us, by us, showcasing us. This is true, too, of newer trans-centred mags, like Ignota; Ignota’s wide range of work, experimental and standard, is a testament to the lovely range of trans writing out there, even as so many mainstream publishers expect us to, or at least wish us to, only write a standard narrative of trauma. This narrative holds true for some of us, to be sure, but we are larger than these stories. I’m thinking, too, of projects like an anthology featuring trans women of colour, put together by Jamie Berrout, Venus Selenite, and Ellyn Pena. And, of course, projects that centre queer writers more broadly, like Nepantla, which focuses on queer writers of colour. There are unquestionably large publishers out there who will publish work by us; I pitch and work day in and out at what I do, like any other freelancer. And I hesitate to write off all of Best American because of this, even as this specific issue, at least, deserves criticism; many places have failed us, but it doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t improve. Even The Antioch Review, far down the line, can possibly become somewhere better. It may be a long shot, but I don’t believe in giving up on (most) places. At the same time, what’s important is that we get a wide variety of work by trans writers out there. Show the range of what we can do: our essays, our criticism, our poetry, our fiction, our art, film, music, dance. Narratives like Harris’ can only exist when you know little of us, when you view us as tropes and ideas rather than as individuals; our art is one way to resist and defeat such simple-minded stories, and any project or place that puts us at the centre is doing just that kind of critical work.

Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, the Atlantic, New York Magazine’s The Cut, Tin House, HuffPost, The Normal School, Electric Literature, Guernica, and many other places. She holds an MFA and PhD from Florida State University and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Berry Grass is originally from Kansas City, got their MFA in Tuscaloosa, and now lives & teaches writing in Philadelphia. Their essays appear in The Normal School, The Wanderer, Barrelhouse, and Sonora Review, among other publications. When they aren't reading submissions as the Nonfiction Editor of Sundog Lit, they are embodying what happens when a Virgo watches too much professional wrestling.

T Clutch Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty and the curator of Body Forms. A Nonfiction Editor at DIAGRAM, they also pull together this series on trans writers and essays.

Monday, September 18, 2017

It Starts with Curiosity: a Conversation with David LeGault and Edward McPherson

Early summer saw the publication of two new essay collections—One Million Maniacs, by David LeGault, and The History of the Future, by Edward McPherson. Each essay collection is, of course, very different from the other. David’s essays explore the nature of collection, gently reminding the world that there is value in not only people’s cast-offs and refuse, but also weird cast-off television shows and movies as well. These are woven together with a thread of an essay about collecting 100 copies of the CD 10,000 Maniacs: Unplugged—a thread that occasionally shows David’s discomfort with his obsession with collection as well as a determination to see his 1 million Maniacs goal through to the end, through job loss and the diagnosis of his baby daughter with Type 1 diabetes.
     Edward’s essays dwell upon geographic locations and the human experience that spins out from them—with a not-insignificant focus on the consequences of human calamity in the form of nuclear threat, climate change and racism. The range from the more personal, spending time in Edward’s family home in Gettysburg, to the journalistic, with our fearless leader exploring the gas boomtowns of the Dakota plains and excavating dinosaur bones nearby. There’s also a focus on the quirky: Edward seeks out a man who builds concrete bunkers, and inhabits the body of a World Fair attendee. As different as they are, both collections share a similarity: the authors explore, in Edward’s words, “questions you just can’t let go.”
     Because we all know each other—the three of us as students in the University of Minnesota MFA program, and David and I further back, as Ander’s students in the undergraduate writing program at Grand Valley State University—I had the good fortune of pestering them about their work. —Morgan Sherburne


Morgan Sherburne: To start, I'll ask maybe a super boring question writers get over and over and over—but can you both talk a little bit about the impetus for these essays/books? Edward, your essays are about many different subjects, but with the common theme of environment/home(s)/future. What sparks the essay? And what do those moments look and feel like? David, you cover many different subjects, but with the common theme of collection/obsession/ collection/obsession. So many of these essays are about small moments. What's the moment look like in which you realize you want to write about a given subject—pogs, the killdozer, the collection of found tools?

Edward McPherson: 
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you mention obsession. It seems to me essays usually sprout from questions you just can’t let go—some sort of compulsion and/or confusion (intellectual, behavioral, emotional, what have you) that’s pushing you to circle around a topic.

     In the case of this book, I started out baby-stepping my way through it, essay by essay. I thought I wanted to write about the history of American places, and I wanted to mix the personal with a more journalistic view. So I first wrote about Dallas, where I grew up, because I hadn’t written much about it, and I had a friend who was writing for the relaunched tv soap, Dallas, right as we were nearing the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination and there were all these intersections (or so it seemed to me) between who shot JFK and who shot J.R. So I did a bunch of research and made a trip to town, where I toured the sites and spent a few days on the set of the show, and an essay came out of that.
     But I didn’t have a road map for that essay and certainly not one for the book. In the beginning, I think I was hoping (and I know my agent was hoping!) that one of the essays might turn into a single-subject book, because doing months and months of research and spending time and money on travel—all for maybe 35 pages (on average) of prose—is a deeply inefficient way to write a book.
     Sadly, it’s the only way I know how. In each of these essays I’m either coming home (to a place I know well) or posing as a tourist (traveling to a place that holds a mystery, something I feel a need to see). For the North Dakota essay, for instance, I just kept reading about the Bakken oil boom and I got fixated on those nighttime videos from space in which you could see the blazing lights of the rigs and flares (where there had been nothing visible just years before). I also kept reading about the bone rush, how they kept finding important dinosaur fossils. And, sure, the two topics are superficially related—things being pulled out of the ground that are enriching the state—but it wasn’t until I was there touring the oil fields and digging for bones in the Badlands that I realized the essay was really about extinction. (Fossil fuels, fossils, climate change, the view from space or the other end of eternity.) It all seems so damn obvious now! But, truly, I had to go there to figure that out.
     And not every subject I tried panned out. For instance, for the past 15 years or so (ever since reading a brilliant piece by David Grann in the New Yorker), I have been obsessed with the century-old water tunnels of New York that run downhill for miles from upstate into the city. I mean, everything about these tunnels amazes me. So I got a bunch of long books with stunning architectural diagrams and happily pored over them before bed (no doubt to the detriment of anyone who engaged me in conversation during those months). But when I sat down to try to write something about these tunnels, there was just nothing there, no real question—only wonder. I was just awestruck, aesthetically. That’s as far as it went. So I had to ditch the water tunnels (and those months of research) and keep digging into New York. Moving sideways, I started reading about subway tunnels, and it just happens that I spent most of the morning of 9-11 stuck in a subway tunnel, and that got me thinking about my early days in New York when I was working at a magazine and about Joan Didion and essays about leaving New York and nostalgia and trauma…and at last I was going somewhere that felt both engaging and confusing.
     So that’s how I kept adding essays one at a time to the book, and I wasn’t sure right up until the very end that they would cohere. But I’m a big believer in a quote from Ben Greenman that I've tacked up over my desk: “A book of essays can be a constellation. Individual pieces shine like stars, but to see the whole project as a unified thing requires a mythology. You need faith to make out a shape around all those dots of light, to believe in the bear or the swan.”
     David, I imagine you’re under the sway of a similar kind of faith? Your essays—while circling a theme—certainly don’t feel proscribed or easy to anticipate, in a very lovely way...

David LeGault: I don't think there was a conscious choice to write about obsession, rather, I think I came to realize that all of the essays I was writing were pretty obsessive in their own way. I think so much of putting all the shorter stuff together into a book had to do with figuring out what it had in common, especially considering that so many of these essays vary in subject and even format—there's a 30-page essay about a VHS-based gaming system and an essay on people falling through ice and an essay that was originally published as a video of sounds I recorded in the dark. People would ask me what I was writing about and I wouldn't even know how to describe it, and any attempt at describing it made me (and still makes me) sound insane. I think when trying to organize it, it seemed like weird objects/ideas people hold onto seemed like a good fit, and then the Maniacs idea (which was an ongoing joke at my job) became a good idea for a narrative thread I could weave through...the Maniacs sections in the book were the only chunks actually written for the book, where everything else was just written on my own weird interests, and I had to try to justify it later.
     As far as the moment goes, I do think it goes back to the idea you mentioned of small moments. It really starts with curiosity—an interesting article, some research I stumbled across, or (while working at a used bookstore) when some bizarre book or piece of ephemera was brought to me directly. Or, like the found tools essay you mentioned, while out on a run and picking up the garbage I find on the ground. I try and learn as much as I can about the thing, and once I get enough information together I look for a pattern or a shape or an idea that I can write around. This usually leads to more research and more threads. I think this brings me back to the idea of writing about collections as well: just like a curator in a museum, I think it's the writer's job to take the collected information they have and put it into an order that directs a reader toward the bigger meaning. Different arrangements lead to different ideas—which is why I can watch the movie Air Bud and direct it towards child abuse and missed family connection, when it could just as easily have been about basketball playing dogs (which in retrospect may have been the better idea anyway).

Morgan: I’m always interested in how writers structure essays into a book. I noticed, David, of course, the construction of your Maniacs thread. I thought the thread worked very well and naturally. Edward, “Three Minutes to Midnight” felt very final and a very good cap for these essays, many of which have this nervousness about natural disasters/manmade disasters.

Edward: “Three Minutes to Midnight” was written last and meant to be something of a finale, or resting place. (It ends the vaguely western movement of the essays—we run into the ocean. It also encompasses some of the themes that were there from the beginning (such as conspiracy theories) but amps up the sense of apocalypse.) If the book is centered on places where the past is erupting into the present in unexpected (often uncomfortable) ways, then this is the essay which boomerangs most forcefully into the future. Where is this all headed? Doomsday and the apocalyptic imagination come into play, since that’s just another oversimplified narrative we cling to in order to duck responsibility and/or sleep soundly at night.

David: Really, for me it was a way for me to better highlight the passage of time, particularly as it related to the whole idea of collecting. I had no children when I started collecting these albums, and by the time I was finished I had two! One of them spent a week in intensive care and to this day she involves around-the-clock care. During that time I had flown to both the east and west coasts for job interviews for jobs I did not receive, instead going back to this retail job I strongly resented, but could not leave because of the health insurance my family desperately needed. In short, all the real-world “adult” stuff in my life was getting really serious, but everyday I would go to work and it would be the same, somewhat mindless reprieve from that as I'd sit in the basement of this store and price/listen to CD's for several hours a day. The idea of the Maniacs collection was becoming more ridiculous, but after two years and 70 CD’s out of 100, how can you stop? I think it helped as a structure for the book because it had a linear progression (zero to a million!) but also to show the significance the project took on: to have twenty copies of the same CD felt crazy, but once I got to 100 after several years, it felt important.

Morgan: David, research is clearly central to your essays, but the weaving together of the research and the personal is so effortless. When you're learning about a thing, what does that learning look like? Edward, can you talk about the difference between writing these essays and pure journalism?

Edward: Before getting an MFA (in fiction) I worked in magazines and newspapers and wrote two nonfiction books. So my early training was in journalism. But the pieces in this book feel very different to me than magazine features. They’re essays—i.e., containers for uncertainty and doubt. And, yes, the essays are a bit journalistic in that there’s an external subject (i.e. not me) that’s under consideration, and I use many of the tools of journalism (the interview, the reporting trip, and so on), and the ethics of journalism might come into play (in terms of how I handle facts, how I treat the people I come across), but I think these essays are also very personal, and they certainly don’t pretend to any sort of pure objectivity. All the information has been filtered through a very present me. So I imagine them floating in the middle of the spectrum, somewhere between the poles of so-called “literary journalism” and memoir.
     And like David, I love research. A recent review noted my reliance on catalogs—how I’m always trying to cram more into an essay. Again and again in the book—whether it’s with the 1904 World’s Fair or our attempts to nuke the moon—wonder and good intentions invariably go awry, often due to a kind of forgetting, an amnesia for the past. That forgetting bothers me, and I like the idea that these essays are my pitiful attempts to combat what Tennessee Williams called the “monosyllable of the clock”: loss, loss, loss. But not through nostalgia—since that’s just a way of sanitizing the past—or embalmment (that is, getting too precious with the historical detailing). Maybe I’m really just hoping to combat inattention, the perpetual distraction that seems to be our current way of being in the world. I mean, there is a bit of aggression in an 80-page essay. I’m trying to slow things down. Hopefully I’m not just the guy saying, “Enjoy a second helping of raw kale, kids!”—I’m always trying to move and entertain—but I am also trying to shift close attention onto the world (what is and what has come before).

David: I think my goal in writing an essay is to make as many connections as possible between seemingly disparate subjects, and I think research is the tool that best allows me to do that. In terms of how it works, it's very unstructured: like you say, a lot of Googling, or watching movies, or going through ephemera. Basically I continue to do it until some pattern emerges. I'm paraphrasing, but there was a really good David Foster Wallace quote about the difference between fiction and nonfiction: fiction starting with nothing and building it into a story, and nonfiction starting with everything and having to remove facts and details. Research helps me see which details to remove in order to shape the thing, especially when it shows us the strange or unexpected. I think Edward's response to the research question works for me as well. I think I am very present in a lot of these essays, even when the focus is on outside research. I think the arrangement and ordering of facts (As well as seeing which one the writer chooses to include) make it personal. Despite my use of facts, I really have no sense of how this would work with more typical journalistic impulses (and I really resist wanting to include citations), but I think my research approaches the same ends while taking a very different path.

Morgan: David, I loved one of the final pieces in this book—a very long (comparatively) essay wherein you slip into being the main actor in various video games. Can you talk a little bit about constructing that essay, especially its almost fiction-like forays into these other games? I'm also curious about your character's experience in the essay alongside your difficulties in real life—the illness of your daughter, Winnie, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at such a young age, and your job search. 
     Edward, all of these essays are so wide-ranging. How do you decide how far to let an essay range? Once you've drafted an essay, what's your process by which you corral it?

Edward: There’s always a tension between finding an ever-expanding terrain and letting an essay sprawl, which often signifies laziness (it means I haven’t figured out what exact questions I’m circling).
     In the early drafts, I let myself go anywhere—knowing that I will have to rein it in during editing. (Luckily, my wife is a particularly ruthless first reader of my work! She knows all my tics.) Starting out, I just cross my fingers that my ongoing aesthetic/artistic/moral/intellectual/ political preoccupations will somehow bind the thing and create some friction. Then I take a hard look at what I’ve got. Ultimately I’m going for something revealing but not didactic. I have to save room for surprise, uncertainty, ambivalence, and so on. The reader should be taken on an investigation that spirals outward and doesn’t end easily (if it ends at all). Then the next move is theirs to make.
     The St. Louis essay in particular mimics the delights and dangers of working this way, in that the essay models a kind of research process allowed to go unchecked. In other words, I'm guilty of the same wishful thinking as the organizers of the World’s Fair—the idea that you can, indeed, cram it all in, capture the whole world in a fair or reveal an entire city in an essay. There are real problems in these dreams that pretend to a kind of completeness—you’re always leaving someone/something out (see all the fair's racism, Eurocentrism, etc.). Thus there’s a moment in the essay when I go on a breathless rant about all the stuff that I have forgotten and/or left out. Turns out I’m a no-good tourist, too. And here I’m doing something I tell my students all the time: I’m trying to make a problem of my essay a problem in my essay.

David: This essay did come about in a different way than a lot of the other essays in the book. Although it certainly fit into the bookstore narrative—several of the VHS tapes of this game did come into work and I did pull them out of a dumpster—the essay was originally a pitch for the Boss Fight Books Series (an awesome publishing project that I highly recommend). I wrote a proposal on the game that wasn’t exactly the right fit, but digging into the game, I was reminded how much imaginative energy I spent as a child pretending to be in this really odd world that no one else cares about, and how badly I wanted other people to care about it (especially The Rescue of Pops Ghostly, which I’m linking here because it really is surreal and worth watching). As an adult, I don’t really get to play video games anymore, but I think they are a compelling subject to write about because they do place the audience in the role of the main character, giving you a chance to change the outcome or (in newer, bigger games) change the story entirely. It also feels like cheating in that I get to write nonfiction that includes ghosts and robots and fantastical elements while still sticking to the essay form. These games give you all the illusions of playing a game like this without any of the payoff, which felt particularly apt when talking about the aforementioned illness and job search stuff.
     In any case, it gets back to the accumulation aspect of my writing: this project was envisioned as an entirely different thing, but eventually I realized that all my essays were more or less getting at the same ideas whether I intended it or not, so the piece was a natural fit for the collection at a certain point.

Morgan: And, finally, from whom do you draw inspiration as writers? Do you have an essayist or poet or novelist who makes you think, “I need to go to work now.” Edward, who do you admire in the journalistic essay genre?

I always have such a hard time with this (what should be a softball) question: I do think it just goes back to obsession in the more general sense. I love to see people get excited or angry or frustrated about something that only they care about. And I think it comes from high-brow and low-brow sources. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men stands out because it starts in a pretty journalistic way and gets progressively more intense as Agee tries (and fails) to capture what he's trying to capture; his frustration is what makes that book so important to me. Of course, I get equally excited about stuff like this because of how batshit crazy it is to spend hundreds of hours trying to find ways to beat Super Mario faster, to learn how to re-write the code of the game by jumping on shells. With that said, I think the correct formula needs more than obsession (it's why I wouldn't call that video interesting in itself, even though the material of it would make a great essay). Maybe it needs the writer's self awareness (or in my case shame or embarrassment), or maybe a more confident writer than I doesn't have to justify their obsession and can simply move on to finding its deeper meaning without also arguing for its existence in the first place.

Edward: There are so many free-ranging journalistic essayists (let’s just call them writers) to whom I owe a debt: Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Kolbert, Teju Cole, Valeria Luiselli, Lillian Ross, John McPhee, Hilton Als, Svetlana Alexievich, Robert Sullivan, Jo Ann Beard, Susan Orlean, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Eula Biss, Denis Johnson, Jamaica Kincaid, D.J. Waldie, James Baldwin, and on and on. All these people really nail characters and/or a sense of place (or sometimes place as character).
     But when I was off wandering the Badlands or oil boomtowns or the atomic desert or the streets of Dallas/Brooklyn/LA/etc., the books I most often carried with me were the Joan Didion classics from the ’60s and ’70s (Slouching…, The White Album).
     Why her, other than the fact that I fell in love with those books years ago in college (and obsessively read her leaving New York essay—like everyone else—when I was working my first Manhattan magazine job)?
     As the book grew darker, something about her paranoia, her relentlessly apocalyptic imagination felt right—it seemed like a certain disastrous amnesia had leeched out across the land. Craftwise, I love her jumps in time and space (offering a kind of angsty cubist view), how she walks the intersection between personal and cultural breakdowns, and all those killer details she fixates on (that act as tuning forks picking up whatever eerie background music is going unheard by the major players in the scene). She’s never really at home; she always claims to know and not know a place, which is why she takes the temperature of every room she enters. Most of all, I like how she arranges all these collisions—within a sentence, within a paragraph—of things that can’t neatly coexist (the personal and the public, our past and present selves, history and the future, an insider and an outsider point of view, etc.)—for me, that’s what makes these places come alive. I’d follow a writer anywhere if the landscape is finely textured and populated with complex creatures and feelings.


Morgan Sherburne has an MFA from the University of Minnesota and an MS in science writing from MIT. She's a science writer on the University of Michigan News team.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Durga Chew-Bose, vacuums & swans-in-a-pond

There are so, so many great lines in Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood, but this one conjoinment of words in particular, for whatever reason, really rocked it for me. From the book’s opening essay, “Heart Museum,” five words synergized into one great, weird image:

A Dyson in the desert

Some context will probably help. The essay plays on her amazement that the heart is such a dependable thing, beating ever onward, continuing its awesome work through all kinds of havoc,

Even when I stand naked in my room after a long day of stupid letdowns, when I consider becoming a woman who screams or hacks off her hair, or tosses her purse instead of hanging it. Even then, when nakedness can’t undo the day, when my heart is lodged in my throat and my whole body falls limp—my whole body like my left wrist when I fasten my watch with my right hand. Limp like that. Even then, when I feel completely poured out and defeated. A Dyson in the desert.

I spent the summer proselytizing: It’s her metaphors that really do it for me – I told everyone, adding an exclamation point, or two. I’ve calmed down some, but the enthusiasm is still there, simmering. 

I didn’t actually know what a Dyson was until I was twenty-five or so, living with an ex-girlfriend who borrowed one from a friend so we could suck two months of accumulated dog fur out of our carpet, and of course some cheap plastic part of this vacuum—the roller, or the bracket thing that holds the roller—snapped in half just as we finished. She was resolute that we would replace the entire machine, or at least have it fixed, if we could, because that’s what you do when you borrow your friend’s expensive tools and break them. We Googled “dyson” and the model type, and quickly realized our options would be limited. She was in school, and I was only making—I am too embarrassed to admit how little—as a landscaper. In the end, the friend was great, and generous, and told us not to worry about it. In fact, she was thoughtful enough to say it was warrantied, which maybe it was or maybe it wasn’t, but that really let us off the hook. 

A few months later we were invited to her wedding, which my girlfriend warned me was to be a $400,000 affair (there are no secrets between some friends), presumably to include a celebrity chef, a barrel of Laphroaig 30-year, ice sculptures and exotic flowers, an orchestra, some swans-in-a-pond, and, and actually I’m struggling to imagine what could possibly make a wedding cost 2.5 times more than the home I am raising my boys in now. In the end, we couldn’t make it and I was honest-to-god relieved. 

The only criticism I have of Too Much and Not the Mood is that Chew-Bose seems to be the type of writer who grew up with a Dyson in the closet. Is that unfair? Is that even a criticism? 

Myself, I grew up very comfortably, I think, knocking out my weekly chores with the Kirby Classic III gifted to my parents when they were married in 1976—the Dyson of its day, maybe. 

Anyway, that line: A Dyson in the desert

A picture of exasperation, exhaustion, arms hanging, shoulders slumped, and—knowing the brand as I do now—resilience. Just lovely.

Craig Reinbold curates this site's Int'l Essayists column and recently co-edited, with Ander, How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader. He works in the ER of a Milwaukee-area hospital, which mostly involves poop and pee and, occasionally, other bodily fluids. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Clutch Fleischmann and Torrey Peters talk about Joss Barton

Below is the next installment in a series on trans writers, genre, and the essay, where I talk with Torrey Peters about the writer Joss Barton and Barton's piece “Lord, Be a Femme.” Check out some other recent interviews in this series-- most recently, conversations with Trish Salah and Cameron Awkward-Rich about their own work.

Before you begin, check out Barton’s “Lord, Be a Femme,” and make sure to check out Nameless Woman: An Anthology of Fiction by Trans Women of Color (edited by Ellyn Peña, Jamie Berrout, and Venus Selenite), where "Lord, Be a Femme" also appears.

T Clutch Fleischmann:

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about an essay (or essay-type thing) you love. I reached out to you for this project in part because I appreciate the way you center trans women in your own writing-- you distribute your work directly to trans women, you explicitly make trans women your audience, you pay deep attention to writing by other trans women, that sort of thing. So I was curious who you would pick to chat about, but not surprised when you immediately suggested something by Joss Barton, a writer we both appreciate. Could you start by telling me a little why you like Barton’s writing, and what you like about “Lord, Be a Femme” in particular?

Torrey Peters:

Morgan M Page, who runs the trans history podcast ONE FROM THE VAULTS, was talking on twitter the other day about how the immediacy of social media and social media critique has dulled the edge of queer art. How young artists run the risk that when they release a work that’s confrontational and difficult, within a few hours, people (often from their own communities) will come after them in that distinctively awful online manner. As a consequence, Morgan wrote (or tweeted, I guess), artists, chilled by online conflict, have begun to produce work that is more anodyne, that appeals to crowd wisdom, that doesn’t challenge or upset, and that functions in an internet-friendly mode. But! Morgan named a single exception, an artist who, to paraphrase somewhat, seemingly doesn’t give a fuck about the properties of her readers: Joss Barton.

Set against Morgan’s concerns, I think Joss’s work is doubly impressive because not only does she thwart the online encouragement of toothless art, she does so while publishing almost entirely online, on online-only mediums. She ignores the beast from within the belly of the beast--or whatever the cliche would be.

I follow a lot of queers on social media, many of whom work very hard to show off how little they care about propriety (I’m also guilty of that). As you scroll down through the endless ho-hum photos and posts of queer paraphernalia and style...suddenly there’s Joss: with a piece about PReP, or craving cum--written in a tone that is not about shock value at all, but instead communicates that she wrote what she did because she’s just simply giving voice to an honest desire--and I, scrolling through my phone hours later and many miles away, genuinely gasp at her audacity, and then can’t help but clutch at my pearls, unable to keep myself from worrying how can she be saying all this, what will it cost her????

Social media and blogs purport to be about communicating immediacy and raw experience, but in fact, like most online mediums, often devolve into the practice of posing and carefully crafting a persona. As a result, when someone like Joss comes along, and shows what actual unposed desire or pain can look like, it’s completely shocking and possibility-expanding. Yet her essays are also kind of a paradox for me, because they are so nakedly honest, and yet also so carefully constructed. So anyway, I chose “Lord Be A Femme,” not just because I think it’s great, but because I wanted your help in thinking through how she achieves all of this.

I read through what Morgan M Page was saying-- it hits on some of the unease I have with a lot of the queer or trans discourse I encounter lately. I appreciate you bringing that into this conversation. I’m especially excited to talk about that in relation to desire and pleasure. We have this massive amount of literature and art that explore desire-- what it means to be the desiring body, how desire and pleasure can impact meaning and selfhood, how desire becomes both a formative element in politics and also a problem in political communities. It’s not hard to find messy desire, or desire that might be politically problematic, or radical desire, all these things that become central in modern essay traditions. I’m thinking of Closer to the Knives, Herve Guibert, City of Nights, The Argonauts, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, etc. All these explorations of the thinking self and the autobiographical self as a self that desires, cruises, engorges, defecates, fucks, celebrates, and encounters.

But in terms of writing about the trans self, and writing from the position of a whole trans self that is allowed all those ranges of being we see in traditions of cis writing and cis queer desire, we don’t have as many models. I think there are models available, and I think we can find trans desire as soon as we can locate trans writing-- “My Words to Viktor Frankenstein,” say, or Sandy Stone, or Trish Salah, or Ralph Werner, or Max Wolf Valerio. But on large right now I’m also hungry for more examples, and surprised at how difficult it is to locate them sometimes, especially if we look to essay and nonfiction instead of to poetry and fiction and erotica, which offer a few more.

So I’m really glad, also, to have Barton’s work for all of these reasons, and appreciating it even more when taken in the context of what Morgan Page pointed out.

Let’s talk some about that, what exactly the writing is doing. When I think of some of the cis queer texts I mention above, for instance, I sometimes get annoyed, that readers seem to stop at “wow, how radical/whatever to be so explicit,” but don’t get to the next step, honestly encountering what’s said. What’s that encounter like for you? What comes after the appreciation?

Well, maybe the thing that comes for me--and why I like it on a deep level, before I get into craft or politics, is the tension between familiarity and unfamiliarity. Maybe even in that eerie and classically Freudian homeliness/unhomeliness uncanny (especially at the end). For me that comfortable familiarity hits right off, with dressing up as a little kid, which I think is as close to home for trans girls as you can get. It’s comforting. The kind of convo I have with trans girls where everyone goes “me too!”

Then, in the second section it gets more specific: with the mention of Yahoo chat rooms, and then stitched into the essay, the introductory online chat that one had in that particular era, as a teenager when picking up a man for cyber sex--and cyber sex is SO specific to a place and time for me.

(side note: I had a relationship this spring in which I had a lot of cyber, and maybe it’s just that the 90’s are in fashion again, but honestly, it’s way more fun than I remembered. Or maybe it’s just fun when it’s not one of the desperate things that you do when you’re closeted and aching for some kind of connection with someone, even someone who might be tricked into seeing you how you want to be seen).

So anyway. What happens is I feel this sense of familiarity. And then, my brain tries to process it. And I think about the various vectors along which I also have had this experience: I’m midwestern. I’m trans. I’m of the same generation.

But just as I feel sure that this is a narrator or a voice who is speaking to my own experience, the experience splits, and I’m taken somewhere unfamiliar to me: growing up poor and brown. And then in the last paragraph it switches modes completely from realism into--I’m not sure what to call it--a kind of Central American-inflected dream logic/orgasm. Which is a barrier into things that I can’t cross, as I feel her moving into a space not only disconnected from the previous epistemologies, but marked as specifically for people of her own experience, an experience that is not my own. But which in being connected to the deeply familiar sissy experiences of trans teenage years and the metaphor of being fucked into orgasm, makes me want to be there with her, in this wistful way. There is a kind of you’re my sister/you’re not my sister at all push/pull thing happening for me, which I find both upsetting and deeply alluring.

And so the deep question that this all brings up for me is facing the ways in which I think my experience is like or unlike those of other trans women--or even to what degree there really exists such a category as “trans women’s experience” or even a category of just “trans women.”

Yeah I appreciate that potential in the explicit, the sexual, all that-- that a body can lead to another body, that the physical can lead beyond the physical, that the point of contact is a point of many contacts, violent and pleasurable and historical and imagined and on and on. It’s like the chorus of men calling for her, voicing their desires as she “bleeds out” for the viewers at home, and then the complicated place of the reader in the mix of all that.

You also mentioned craft, which I think is important. The disjunction and fragmentation seems pretty comfortably in line with a lot of contemporary essays, and the weighing of the autobiographical alongside the other concerns also seems in line with essay craft. But the moves and language of the piece feel totally fresh to me at the same time-- when it veers in new directions, it’s a surprise, but the movement carries me.

Yes, I think that’s why those final turns work so well. The first two thirds set up certain expectations, and then those expectations are both thwarted and expanded, so you see what comes with totally fresh eyes, and without the normal walls that one puts up. Had the essay started with such incredible imagery, I might have rolled my eyes. I would have been like, “Okay this is one of THESE essays, and I’ll read it in THIS way,” but by the time she took that final turn, she’d relaxed me, she had gotten me nodding along, reading with my guard down--so when hallucinatory final section hit, with the subsequent change in tone, register, and language, I’m completely vulnerable to it. And then meanwhile, it’s this really high, wild language, but the metaphor is set up in such plainly sexual terms, that it’s almost orgasmic itself, complete with the comedown, where after an orgasm you open your eyes again, and it’s just some dude sheepishly pulling off a condom or, as she says, wiping off his dick. It’s like sacred and profane and exquisite and banal all in one long run. Which is how sex so often is, when you can look right at it.

So when you put the first section together with the last section. It’s almost the narrative of how she created herself as a sexual being: the path from a young child, through shrugging off the shame of teenage years, to the moment in which she can fuck as an adult woman, with all the glory and ambivalence that entails. The essay is both a lifetime and a tiny moment, or maybe I should say that employs a lifetime to serve a tiny moment.

Glory and ambivalence… Yeah, I’m thinking again of how the (trans) self is constructed, what risks we are or are not encouraged to take by our friends, our social worlds, when we render our self and our body in text.

I think that’s a nice place to close. Thanks for chatting with me about this, Torrey, and giving us the occasion to celebrate some writing.