The author of multiple books including Bluets, The Art of Cruelty, and Jane: A Murder, Maggie Nelson’s latest work is The Argonauts, a memoir chronicling her romantic life with partner Harry Dodge and the complicated but ultimately joyful process of their queer family-making. The book continues Nelson’s tradition of candid, deeply intimate, and intellectual agile genre-bending works.
In an interview with Jennifer Doerr, Nelson talks about the dueling urges to classify versus transcend, the willingness to risk being unliked in the service of truth-telling, and the strange new ground of writing about family happiness.
The Argonauts will be released in paperback in April 2016. At that time, Graywolf Press will also re-issue Nelson’s book The Red Parts.
JD: There’s so much content in the book, I figure what I’ll start with is the way the book is tagged as “autotheory.” This is the only time I remember seeing a book classified this way. Is that something you can explain a little?
MN: I basically stole it from Beatriz Preciado book called Testo Junkie. I think she’s using it, I’ve since learned, from a longer tradition, probably stemming from feminism in the ’70s, [as] a kind of shorthand for theoretical inquiry that uses the self as some kind of ethnography, an ethnographic source. It just seemed convenient; labels are for publishers and bookstores. And I’m not fond of the word “memoir.” I just write books, and I don’t really care what they’re called. But it’s helpful for people, I guess, to at the very least be able to find a word that points more in the direction of the books or traditions I find inspiring.
JD: Another thing I found really interesting, that seemed to be a throughline through the book, is that tug between the appeals and allures of classification versus the rewards of transcendence and ignoring classifications. I’m wondering, how does that duality function for you?
MN: I think some people, in a more conservative approach to life, probably, are taught or come to feel that the pleasures of aligning one’s multiplicitous self under a classification. Which makes sense, as those pleasures are incentivized and rewarded, so you feel kind of like, “I’m a wife.” You feel pleasure in those classifications. But any given lived day is not usually spent reifying some category that you think you are. Even in the most consolidated person, there are other flickers. I quote Denise Riley in the book, she says gendered self consciousness has, thankfully, a flickering nature…she’s talking about a day where you go outside, not feeling especially womanly or not womanly, you’re not thinking about gender, and then you might get catcalled, and [so] are brought back to yourself as a woman. Or you might get your period and you might go, “Oh, I guess I’m a woman.” In any event, it’s not a seamless thing. I think that the flickering is more the norm, and so I’m trying to figure out where the pressure that gets causes calcification comes from. I think that’s more mysterious than the flickering.
JD: One of the vignettes that really resonated for me in this was when you were talking about the mortification of your professor, Christina Crosby, when she was asked, “How do you identify?” I experienced that as a respectful question. But she just did not want to answer that at all.
MN: The whole idea of strategic identification, that’s an old theoretical idea…You know, you can march as mothers in support of your incarcerated children or something one day, but it doesn’t mean that you’re imprisoned by your identity as a mother every day of your life. There are strategic moments in which we align with certain things.
JD: One of the earliest scenes in your book that really pulled me in is that moment in the kitchen when you were starting to pepper [your partner] Harry with newspaper clippings about [how] his taking testosterone [T] might go wrong, and your fears about the physical changes or personality changes that you imagined could happen.. I find it thrilling when someone’s just honest about their ambivalence. Was it hard, did you have to force yourself to do it, or did it flow?
MN: No. I think that all the action in an autobiography, for me, anyway, is the auto-ethnography part. The ambivalence is a critical look at oneself – that doesn’t mean critical like negative, just critical like examining oneself. Herve Guibert has a lovely quote saying that when he writes, he’s the scientist who splits the rat open for research and the rat, both at the same time…I’ve written a lot of autobiography, but I never really participate in conversations about narcissism or self-involvement or whatever because to me, there’s not really a lot of difference between writing about “myself” versus writing about a cultural phenomenon or writing about a piece of art – the critical activity is the same. So no, it’s not difficult, because the stakes of the things I’m trying to explore are so much higher for me than what I come off like. No one wants to publish a book about which everyone says, “I hate this person,” or “This person’s really smug,” or “This person’s really needy.” It’s not like that’s what feels good. But it wouldn’t really matter to me at the end of the day should those be the costs of doing the exploration.
JD: The other thing, early on, which I thought was very compelling, was when you presented the original draft to Harry. That was not an easy moment. He was displeased; he had some feelings of not being seen, of not being understood. If I remember this correctly, he also felt like the relationship didn’t seem like it reflected back on the way he thought. How did you resolve, and how do you steer through such tensions there, for the creative act?
MN: It’s not easy. I think that when you write, at least when I write, I write whatever I want and write the most difficult things, or the ugliest things, You have to write through whatever you have to say with total freedom, I think, and then after that, you can do another pass where you think, “OK, got all that out. What am I trying to say here, and what would I actually be willing to show someone else?” I think that whenever you focus on something—and a book always has to draw a circle around something, an area of focus—it’s going to feel to the other person in the relationship like a form of distortion. Because your act of focusing on one part of the relation excludes millions of other parts of what is between you. [To] somebody like Harry, because the culture has always read him as non-normatively gendered, you’re going to be pressing on a very irritating spot by re-circling around something in a book that he would just prefer were unremarkable. He’d prefer to just be himself and not have to continually have this conversation about gender, which, in his words, is essentially medieval, in terms of its lack of nuance. Knowing all that, I knew the whole book was going to be tricky. But I’ve never met a writer of nonfiction who hasn’t had to negotiate the issues of others’ reactions, so I don’t think that there’s anything particularly malleable about my process here. I just decided to let the reader in on that part of the process, by rendering it in the book itself.
JD: I also found it interesting when you touched on the fact that, at one point, you and Harry had to discuss writing together, but that there is this moment in you where you just realized you weren’t ready for that. You wanted to protect the unearthing of your own voice, and not merge in that way quite yet. But there is a portion in The Argonauts where you include some very powerful writing from Harry about his mother’s death. How did it come to pass that he was able to join you in that piece of contribution, and did you have any more thoughts on maybe writing more together in the future?
MN: That was from an email that he sent out to about a dozen or half-dozen friends. I don’t know if you have had this experience, but often when you have just witnessed someone die there’s something about it that is so intense that it feels often like the blow-by-blow needs to be conveyed to another person. I think when he came back from being with his mom when she died, he just needed to tell his friends what had happened. So he sent out that email. I had wanted to record his mom’s presence and her passing in the book because the book is so much about mothers and paying homage, to different family structures, but it didn’t make sense to me to rewrite something he’d already written so well. Plus, and I hadn’t really realized this until Harry pointed it out to me, but the way the book is organized, the revelation, as it were, that his mom was his adoptive mom comes after her death scene. It was also important to me to use Harry’s words because Harry is an excellent writer and some people, in hearing about his concerns about language’s adequacy at the start of the book, might misunderstand him on that account. Some people have wanted a binary in which I’m the word person and he’s a “man of no words,” a visual artist. But as I say in the book, his ambivalences about language come from a life of using language in his work, often profusely. I felt like I needed to convey that one can have the ambivalences that he has about language and also be a fierce practitioner of it, with it.
JD: I remember you saying, “He writes wild.” I may be messing up the paraphrasing there a little, but that for you, you sometimes think about artists, “Who’s the more free person here?” You were laboring, you felt, and he was just organic and flowing. I had a sense of him as someone who, while you debated about the limitations of language and what it can do, he still was at play. That was a part of who he was. When you read the excerpt, it was such a powerful example. I thought that came full circle. You could really feel that view of the world on a page, just right there.
MN: I came up as a poet…interested in becoming, as I say, like a serial minimalist. I’m always condensing my sentences or trying to make them polished gem-type sentences. Also I have a Ph.D., and I’ve done my share of academic writing, so while there’s a kind of lyricism I have, a tight lyricism, there’s also this discursive argumentation that I have been trained to do, that I like to do. I think those combined can be a perfectly great writing style, amongst my other influences, but I think that Harry has a more flowing speech-based style that often I envy. We all have what we have.
JD: Another scene I thought was really interesting was, you’re talking about the six months where both of your bodies were changing. Harry had started on T. You were pregnant. So you’re going in understandably different directions. Harry’s sex drive was spiking, and yours was powering down for the moment. I think, if I remember correctly, that was part of the text where the concept of sodomitical maternalism came in. I have to admit, I struggle a little in my understanding of that. Could you enlarge on that a little for us here?
MN: The term “sodomitical maternity,” which is a mouthful, came from a feminist critic I respect, Susan Fraiman. She writes about it in her great book, Cool Men and the Second Sex. The phrase is, she says, meant to indicate the mother with a sexuality that’s in excess of the procreative capacity, which in some sense is very banal. I don’t think anybody really, even in the most uptight conservative quarters, really thinks that humans only have sex for procreative purposes. But historically there’s been this upheld opposition between procreation and queers—think of the image of the queer, childless pervert and the panic about protecting children from queer sexuality. That’s all starting to shift now, and “sodomitical maternity” is part of that. The phrase was also important to me because in my book, while I’m talking about queers and perversion and children, I’m also kind of reminding people to keep adding the mother to that conversation, or at least not let her drop out, where she might appear (sometimes she doesn’t appear). Because sometimes there has been an exile of the maternal body from those conversations (as with [Lee] Edelman).
JD: Maybe I’m overthinking language, maybe I’m not simply up on the latest lexicon, but I remember you saying one of the things that you were kind of amazed at with Harry was how your perversions matched so easily. To me, I thought that seems like a word that’s too hard on yourself, because, what is a perversion? Is it just a situation in which it’s like choosing a menu item?
MN: What you’re describing is what a theorist Gayle Rubin called very helpfully “benign sexual variety,” which is something that this country, along with many other countries, does not seem to be able to get on the program with.
As I point out in the book, even on ostensibly straight porn websites, it’s very instructive to note that there’s every perversity listed under the sun, and that a lot of people, with the advent of internet porn, are spending half of their day checking off boxes about what they like, and it’s definitely not all one-on-one missionary style heterosexual sex. So even though acknowledging the fact of benign sexual variety is a lived, normal part of many people’s lives now, there hasn’t been an ideological admission in the culture of it. (Not that everything on the Internet is benign, but you catch my drift.)
JD: I’m sure I’m not the only one to ask you this, but here goes: The publication of your book comes on a year when there’s been, in the public eye, an enormous increase in celebrity visibility for the transgender and fluidly-gendered communities. You’ve got Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox – even Miley Cyrus, I think, recently identified herself as fluidly gendered. There seems to be this pansexuality thing that’s happening. What’s your sense of what this is doing or not doing? Have you seen any sort of door crack open where you think maybe there’s more tolerance, or interest, or anything positive or is it a little bit more storied than that?
MN: It’s a complex moment. As my friend Jack Halberstam said about the New York Times’ trans visibility campaign: “It’s been a bumpy roll-out.” I’ll say, “and then some.” Probably in five, ten years from now, we’ll see a lot of positive effects from this time. But as with any time when the mainstream suddenly decides that it’s gonna get interested in something, it’s very sensationalistic, and can create the feeling that trans is some kind of trend, or flavor of the month, because that’s what it is for some media creators. It’s important to note that that annoying sense of trendiness isn’t created by trans people, it’s created by the way the media covers things. So it’s a mixed bag, to say the least. Not the least of which is the fact that whenever you have a big visibility movement, you’re going to have a lot of renewed violence, and a lot of effort is needed to make sure the most vulnerable parties—not the richest celebrities—are getting what they need. And on that account, we’re not even close.
JD: Spokesperson seems to me to be a very tough burden for anybody.
MN: One of the problems with this spokesperson thing is that it continues the idea that there is a minority of people who are inflicted by gender dysphoria—a minority called “transgender Americans,” as the NYT put it—and that the rest are perfectly at home and happy with their gender. Certain forms of feminist and queer analyses see it very differently.
JD: I thought the story where you bring up the credit card was provocative. You and Harry went to a pumpkin patch and Harry presented his credit card, which still had his name as Harriet on it. You were given a look that you first identified as having a “violence” attached to it. There was a moment of anxiety and he said, “it’s a complicated story.” The cashier seemed to soften suddenly, and replied “It’s not complicated at all.” And then you seemed to realize it wasn’t a big deal at all. Was that your experience of it?
MN: It’s interesting that you bring that anecdote up. Some people asked me a couple times if I could include a few more instances of violence or discrimination in my book, and honestly, two things: one, some of those stories, they just give the perpetrators too much visibility. They’re not worth revisiting in print because one can already imagine those fuckers, what they do and what they think. That’s kind of more the norm. I mention someone beating Harry up in San Francisco but it’s just kind of like, whatever. I mention it in passing. With the pumpkin patch, you’re right, I was interested in showing the ambivalences of living in this world rather than reifying the stories we already imagine.
JD: I thought that was an unexpectedly hopeful moment at the end. Just a little inching towards, OK! Having the possibility of a response where somebody processes it and your brain tries to scramble to organize the stimulus, and then you think, OK, that’s it, that’s fine, here you go, here’s your pumpkins. I thought that was something quite lovely.
MN: Part of the stress of being gender non-comforming is that you’re dealing all day every day with people acting totally strange to you, and that’s very difficult, even if a particular episode doesn’t end in overt violence or discrimination. It takes a toll. There’s a lot to be said politically for holding down a third space, but as Claudia Rankine’s book [Citizen: An American Lyric] has made clear to so many around racism, the micro-aggressions attending daily life take physical toll on you, in terms of high blood pressure, stress, all these things. They have a somatic effect. Which is one of the reasons why Ruth Wilson Gilmore, in her excellent book Golden Gulag, defines racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” This shit is killing people in so many ways.
JD: As I was reading through more and more, there were many times where I was reminded of the principle of the middle way in Buddhism, that there is this gentleness in how you are giving everybody their moment with their perspectives, but you weren’t caving in to either one, be it the choices of, “I’m not going to do theory or poetry or memoir, I’m not going to be too concerned with classification, but I’m gonna acknowledge it, but I’m gonna leave room for the transcendent process of becoming.” Is that Buddhism and middle way, is that part of a philosophy that you have in your life, or is that just coincidental to the way it played out?
MN: In other books of mine, I talk a little more explicitly about the way I know Buddhism—by reading, not really by practice, but I’m certainly interested in Buddhist thought and have made use of it at different times. Oftentimes when I read Buddhist thought, it just is very sensical to me, whereas a lot of Western philosophy really just confuses itself, especially around dualisms—
JD: The either/or, either/or is just exhausting—
MN: I love John Cage’s line where he says something like “love is making space around the beloved.” I think that this idea of giving people some space, which I think is something that is, hopefully, a kind of poetic or elliptical writing style can do. It’s kind of an illusion. You’re using other people’s stories for your own ends, but at the same time, as much as some might call that “exposing” myself or others, I don’t experience my writing as exposure. I experience it as a kind of articulation of specificity as well as trying to make space for other people’s mysteries, as well as my own. We talk about autobiography or whatnot most often as happening on a spectrum of concealment or revelation, and that’s not really a very interesting scale to me.
JD: At the end of the book, Iggy is a newborn. You haven’t had much time with him on the page at that point yet. I wonder, in the next few years of motherhood, what are some of the surprises, some of the experiences you’ve had that maybe have come into your life in that capacity and how have they changed, if at all, your philosophies, maybe your experience of the world?
MN: Gosh, you know, the sense of delight that I express in The Argonauts has only continued. I love the heck out of my little guy. But you know, when I look at other books of mine, like the book about women of the New York School, I see that there’s tons about mothering, the poetics of mothering, whatever the hell that means; or more than that, that book is obsessed with a certain dichotomy of caring and not caring. These have been longstanding interests of mine. I didn’t kind of get pregnant and go through a portal by which everything intellectually and emotionally in my life was rearranged. I don’t have a lot of changes in that account, I just have ongoing delight.
JD: It’s very hard to talk about love without sounding clichéd, but it’s quite profound. From where you sit in the world of academics, do you still see this persistence in thinking that discussion about motherhood, art of motherhood, critical thinking about motherhood is sort of less valid of a topic than something more patriarchal? And do you think that there’s still this view of motherhood that makes you softheaded?
MN: I think there’s still that view, which doesn’t mean there also isn’t a lot of good work being done in academic quarters about mothering or the maternal function. But given how many people have asked me if I think that there’s some conflict between mothering and thinking, even when I just published a pretty “thinky” book written in the first year of my son’s life, it does seem to me that many people are addicted to maintaining that divide, even when they profess not to be. I teach graduate school, and I still talk to a lot of female students who worry that if they have a baby, they won’t be able to write. There’s still a lot of word on the street that it’s not really possible. Now as always, I don’t think it’s maternal softheadedness that’s the problem as much as it’s the age-old question of cultural support, of making things economically possible for people, so that we are able to have time to do more than one thing, and also meet our children’s needs. Because children do have incredible needs. Personally, so long as I get some time to write, I don’t stress out about the time spent with my kids (or vice versa) because I think that it is all part of one flow, it is all living life.
Maggie Nelson is a poet, scholar, and nonfiction writer who teaches in the School of Critical Studies at California Institute of the Arts. She is the author of Bluets (2009), The Red Parts: A Memoir (2007), Something Bright, Then Holes (2007), Jane: A Murder (2005), The Latest Winter (2003), and Shiner (2001), which was a finalist for a Norma Farber First Book Award. She is also the author of a critical work on the New York School poets, Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (2007), which won a Susanne M. Glassock Award for Interdisciplinary Scholarship. Her critical study of aesthetics and cruelty, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (2011), was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Nelson’s many honors and awards include grants and fellowships from the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts and an Innovative Literature grant from Creative Capital for her forthcoming book of nonfiction. Nelson lives in Los Angeles with her partner, the artist Harry Dodge, and their two children.
Jennifer Doerr is a writer whose credits include The New Yorker, Mediabistro, Publishers Weekly, Self, Shape, and more.