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?
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.