This began as a two-and-a-half hour-long interview with Maisie Mattia, the best writer I’ve ever met, but it has become something else. Maisie cut, remade, embossed, and embellished the transcript—invested it with the urgent, erudite gusto that courses through all of their stories. What they’ve made could change so much about so much of the way you see.
They grew up in Texas and live in New York City. They have an MFA in Fiction from Hunter College. They’ve been working on a collection called Unsex Me Here. Two of its stories have been published—most recently Via Crucis, in Zoetrope—and the rest have not. You can reach out to Maisie at maisiemattia.com, or by Instagram DM (milk_woman_), or by email (email@example.com) to read them. I hope you do.
Meanwhile, wherever possible, Maisie has provided links to interviews, to poems, to full PDFs of the books referenced, or PDFs of the specific quoted essays within those books, or failing that, of a google books PDF of the specific page or line being referenced. If a work appears in translation, Maisie has attempted to find the quotation in the original, online.
LIT: Your work astonishes at all levels—diction, paragraph, structural subdivision—but your sentences are particularly miraculous. It feels rude to pluck one out of its context, but…perhaps we could start with a sentence that simultaneously rang true and confused me. “God is a panic state,” you write in The Fifth Wound. What do you mean by that?
I was taught about this god at the dawn of the twenty-first century, at a time when american empire was using the specter of terrorism to proliferate state surveillance, and at the tail-end of a media obsession with kidnappings. The patriot act and the twenty-four hour news cycle are both, also, forms of paranoid reading, of sapere aude awareness, awareness heightened to a pitch of panic. These various forms of daily, manic repetition produced in me, at age five, a sense of precarity. Of course, also, femininities were beginning to speak through me, there was a destabilization of meaning from the site of gender, or more specifically, genre. I learned how to recognize this femininity at the same time as I learned to neutralize it. I began obsessively imagining my own death on the way to school. I began to question whether I loved my family, to the extent that I wouldn’t allow my parents to say goodnight to me, ‘because I should only say I love you if I am certain I love you, and I’m not certain I love you.’ I refused them not out of petulance, but out of a sense of extreme unease––because I had realized, suddenly, though of course inarticulately, that I couldn’t take anything for granted. I was terrified of flux.
So there were destabilizations on the level of self and culture, but there was also a spatial element, which was related to the confluence of whiteness and wealth. I’m thinking of what the poet Ivanna Baranova, in her book Confirmation Bias, unforgettably terms “this eternal rhinestone aptitude of the white imagination,” and what Gloria Anzaldua, in Borderlands/La Frontera calls “the aesthetic of virtuosity”––which I will return to later. In the late 90s I lived in Laguna Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles; the street in front of my house was quiet, I didn’t know most of my neighbors, only the silent rows of pristine, austere homes. But behind my house, beyond the orange trees blooming in the yard, was a valley, where a pack of coyotes wandered and howled in the night. Those coyotes killed my cat, Sunshine; my parents heard her death-scream. In front, a silence of wealth; behind, a howl of nature.
Then, in 2000, I moved to Plano, a suburb of Dallas, Texas, where I lived in a prefabricated neighborhood, that is, a sudden, ahistorical event, appearing ‘as if from thin air,’ all at once––which, precisely because of this temporal rift, and in order to assert a sort of generalized, frantic lineage, had realized itself as a phantasmagorical, unpredictable collage of French Chateau, English Victorian, Italian Renaissance and Spanish Revival-style McMansions. (But, paradoxically, or perhaps because of the uncanny discomfiture of choosing to embed oneself in this sort of reverse ghost town, this immense Sarduian architectural theme-park, I felt in that neighborhood a much more robust sense of community. I wandered and roved with my neighbors far from parental supervision, though of course those intimacies produced their own violences.) As for the spatial incongruity: behind my house, through a small wood and across a creek named White Rock, there was a vast farm––and this farm was populated by horses. Sometimes I would journey through the woods (clambering across a pipe that, like a bridge, twenty feet high, spanned the creek, then passing by a bamboo copse and an old sky-blue refrigerator with bones inside, before slipping through a barbwire fence) to go walk among the horses. I was living at the fringe of empire’s dream of itself, and so felt, half-consciously, the destabilization of that dream: the dream of ‘controlled nature,’ of the endless city––in a word, civilization.
Then I moved again, because my family moved every two years from state to state, for no reason other than my father’s restlessness. This is by no means an enumeration of sufferings; if anything it is a constellation of affects. I am trying to make sense of an almost perpetual state of attention, and the history of a single sentence.
Later, in a more so-called liberal interlude of american empire, the state decided to absorb the concept of trans people. This process of absorption, what we call ‘representation,’ is how the state attempts to make surveillance attractive to me, by the glittering reflection of my image in its carnival mirrors, and by legal protections. Empire considers itself the exhaustive archive of humankind; we begin to exist for empire when empire becomes aware of us. In the process of this act of discovery, we are taxonomized, essentialized––caricatured. In Poetics of Relation, Edouard Glissant clarifies, for me, how an Enlightenment valorization of the so-called truth-seeking rational mind expresses itself structurally in the neoliberal curio cabinet of Representation. And he also provides me with a firm, ecstatic theoretical defense of the absolute necessity of the baroque, of maximalism as a vital mode of expression, expansion––depressurization of the self. He writes: “Agree not merely to the right to difference but, carrying this further, agree also to the right to opacity that is not enclosure within an impenetrable autarchy but subsistence within an irreducible singularity.”
Because the perpetual liberal call for transparency is the ‘spirit’ to the ‘father’ of representation. Transparency means explaining myself, which means, in turn, paying attention to and responding to the ways my selfhood is predetermined by the algorithm of the state, as expressed through my interactions with other people on a daily, hourly basis, both online and on the sidewalk, in the classroom, at work, in the hospital, and so on. An obsession with understanding how I’m being seen is extremely damaging to pleasure. And also to experiencing emotions—most of my life, I’ve known I’m in love by the intensity of my fear that I’m not in love. It’s hard to communicate the extent to which I have to understand my emotions by their opposite. Paranoia is, for me, the most direct antonym for pleasure, but also the most acute signal of its possibility; that is, the sites where I’m feeling the greatest paranoia are also the sites of the greatest possibility for it to be otherwise, in my relationships with lovers and in my relationship with my body, my book of wounds. (In One-way Street, Walter Benjamin writes: “To be happy is to be able to become aware of oneself without fright.”) And of course that affects my writing, even a detail like the angels’ song in Via Crucis––even though I write to shock my mind out of the dull loops of an obsessive-compulsive consciousness. This is why I’m so fond of the blank page. When I stop writing each morning at the first sound of birdsong, I think of my mother, who wakes every day with the birds in order to swim at a local spring. The weight of a gesture is different in water than in air. A blithe movement becomes vital. The same is true of the page––where my mind is lighter and my words are heavier. Because as I wander from room to room, or sidewalk to sidewalk, my mind aches, feels leaden, repetitive, foreclosed to wonder, always predictable and yet freshly terrified, and my words are meaningless, by which I mean they always, implosively, mean the same thing—but when I come to the page my mind is an afterthought, I chase revelations around every comma, I giggle about a scrap of song, I open the door of the smallest metaphor as if it led to an entire subterranean configuration of Eden, where flowers feed on shadow, and angels, clutching stalactites with their feet, sleep upside-down...
Lately I’ve been thinking more about water, because Townes Van Zandt is a triple Pisces, because a lover of mine is a Cancer, and because I’m a Scorpio sun and a Pisces rising. Before I knew any astrological particulars, I assumed Scorpio was a fire sign, since scorpions live in deserts. But I’ve come to understand, through conversations with my friend Lu––my lover’s partner––that in the desert, which is the most extreme absence of water, where an intense fantasy of water is inspired by its utter lack, the only place to find water is inside of highly defensive beings like cacti and scorpions. So at its most damaging, Scorpio could signify a form of self-repression, an inability to use the matter of my own visions to create, in the desert, the possibility of a garden. On the other hand, the water is present though not visible, eddying rather than flowing (a spiral rather than arrow-like force, an attunement to cycles, a carrying of the same irreducible content through one thousand and one forms), or simply still, deep, fetid: the water is opaque: felt, not seen not heard. As I’ve learned from Tourmaline’s instagram, a water sign is more generally a fluid sign; that is, it is related to blood, to cum, to ink. My own sense is that, for Scorpio, to free these fluids means in some way to destroy oneself––means becoming the act of expression rather than the fact of a vessel. This question comes up in Via Crucis, in terms of the two allotropes of pure carbon: “I keep spitting out diamonds. But diamonds don’t say anything because they can’t break. Diamonds make a virtue of being unsayable. I’m praying to escape the palace of my glistening laughter. I’m praying for a season of graphite. Graphite destroys itself to become a word.” Becoming-word is a form of intimacy, it is the place where we exceed the clumsy maximums of our bodies––whoever we happens to be. Anastasia, who (along with her inverse and double, Cassandra) is speaking now, and who is the narrator of both Via Crucis and my unpublished novella The Fifth Wound, and who appears in my unpublished second novel, Estrogen––she says, “the value of Artifice lies not only in the rejection of Truth, but in the candor of my exaggerations, the vulnerability of a grand gesture, my whole persona balanced on the narrow point of a phrase.” Becoming-word is not a retreat or an escape, it is an attunement, a refusal of panic. Panic is not only a fretting over meaning, or an overabundance of attention paid to the possibility of meaning (in gestures, coincidences, signals) but the misattribution of every signal to the same cause: some form of danger. Becoming-word is a way of trusting meaning to take care of itself, it’s an investment in a few particular symbols.
So you could call this a genealogy of the sentence “God is a panic state.”
LIT: Talking to you now, and reading your stories—you seem intent on making your subtext part of the text, part of our text. And you do that by being very clear about this interconnected web of people you’re inspired by, channeling, echoing. But also with lodestar symbols—opals, feathers, cum, oh what else…orchids—that seem central to your subtext-as-text approach. Does that sound right?
Glissant is always writing about order and chaos, how chaos (which could be called content, or the primary matter of a poet’s few symbols) keeps order in a state of perpetual shapeshift. Order could be called form, or the constellation of symbols in a given story, which arrange and rearrange themselves on a wholly different timescale than that of the narrative, dictated as it is by a grammar of linear time––the timescale of symbols is one of ritual. Symbols are, for me, an attempt to create a kind of order that is not superimposed and violent but responds to the needs and generosities of the instant.
Let me specify: I don’t write standalone metaphors. Standalone metaphors are nothing more than beautiful or surreal attempts at explanation. Symbols don’t explain; they are a way of inviting the mystery of myself into a sentence. Of suggesting the possibility of another logic, within and against the forward temporal force of narrative. Of realizing an immanence of vision, that sense of water swift and peaceful above secret places, felt, not seen not heard, within the realm of the fabricated-real––within a story made of possible facts (realist fiction as a conservative form of ‘what could have happened.’) Because both the fact-language and the fantasy-language are modes of language, both the story and the symbol are made of words. Whereas the relation of lived-reality to dream-reality is often described as a unidirectional stream of influence: the matter of lived-reality is absorbed and manipulated in dreams, the so-called real-world therefore makes the dream possible, while the dream, being purely subjective, purely unreal, has no effect on the matter of the world, whether or not the dreamer is inspired to act according to its lurid and nonsensically intimate disclosures.
This is false, I think; and becoming-word allows me to re-naturalize the particular symbiosis of fact and fantasy which subtends any possibility of an unsexing. Unsexing is what happens when I as a transsexual am understood not as basically a man or a woman, but as a particular affect in a particular instant––the affect does not refer back to a stabilized state of sex, but creates an instantaneous atmosphere. Which is to say: Unsexing is a way of never arriving. Which might explain the prevalence, in my writing, of kaleidoscopes. Clarice Lispector writes: “Eu sou antes, eu sou quase, eu sou nunca. E tudo isso ganhei ao deixar de te amar,” or “I am before, I am almost, I am never. And all of this I won when I stopped loving you.” The proximity of almost and never, this is the space, the space of interinanimation (cf. John Donne, Fred Moten), where paradise flashes and vanishes like a firefly: so Borges writes, “esta inminencia de una revelación, que no se produce, es, quizá, el hecho estético,” or “this imminence of a revelation that does not arrive, is, perhaps, the aesthetic fact.” The aesthetic fact is precisely this space of language where fact and fantasy are entangled in the manner of a Gordian knot.
Never-arriving means always-becoming, and also always-returning. Always-returning is the splendor of iteration––of ritual. Ouroboros. Which reminds me of one verse in a Wang Wei poem, whose title I might translate as Floating on the Han River with a Far-off Gaze: 《山色有无中》or: “Color of the mountain: between Being and Non-being.”
But obviously the original is so much more elegant I want to scream. I’ll just say this: scorpions are fluorescent. Under ultraviolet light, they glow turquoise.
“The voices that really matter will be the ones that come from underneath, not above: the vast swell of young people who have been warning us about our behaviour for the past couple of years.” – Colum McCann
I knew a man. I wanted to know a man but now I can say only that I knew a man. I knew a man and I knew his myth.
The man’s myth was this: to listen for the tune inside of language, to listen for the tune at which language produces empathy. Every symbol was an attempted illumination of the individual voices within the collective voice of the English language. Not only an illumination: an irrefutable humanization.
The man’s myth was to mobilize beauty toward liberation. To shatter Empire with the speed of a song.
When a man speaks in one thousand and one voices, does he end up believing all voices are his to speak, or to make silent?
The man himself listened to my voice. And as he listened he praised. He said: you are like no one before you. Even better: you are an ecstatic poet on the order of Blake. On the order of. On the order of.
The man was a writer. The man was a writer celebrated and adored. The man was a writer who sent my writing to the ears of the powerful. The man supported my writing extravagantly. I was so grateful to that man. I cried from gratefulness to that man.
But why in the first place did I need the man? Why did my work not speak for itself?
Sometimes the man spoke to me as if I were a naif, sometimes as if I were a prophet. Sometimes the man asked me to repeat phrases back to him. Sometimes the man demanded that I repeat the following phrase: “I do not write for trans people.” The man said he asked me to say so because my writing was too important to be only for trans people. Trans people were too few. Trans people were too insignificant an audience, to that man.
Nonetheless the man loved my writing. The man misunderstood, and the man understood. Always I felt this rippling between us: understanding, misunderstanding. The understanding was intuitive, the misunderstanding was inherited. Surely Empire taught him to consider transgender people an insignificant audience. So I forgave the man for his misunderstandings.
Then a woman told a story about that man. The woman told a true story about that man. The woman told the public that the man had assaulted her. Many argued about her account. Many more believed her.
(Other women told stories, too. Other women told stories about the man sleeping with undergraduates at the school where he taught. The other women did not tell those stories in public. The stories are whispered, and whispered, and whispered.)
The man denied that he had ever slept with the woman. The man said the woman’s voice was false. The man refused to apologize. The same man who sought to make music from empathy. The same man who had devoted his life to making music from empathy.
That man assaulted the woman. That man enacted violence against the woman. I want that man to reduce himself to his own voice. I want that man to apologize. I want that man to apologize. I want that man to apologize. First and foremost I want that man to apologize.
I had placed my trust in the man. The man betrayed my trust. That man betrayed his own writing. That man betrayed my writing. If I did not speak I would be betraying my own writing, too.
That man was my mentor. That man is no longer my mentor. I want that man to apologize. I want you to apologize. Not to me. To her, to her, to her.
LIT: Can you share more about “the particular symbiosis of fact and fantasy” subtending—what a word!—subtending your unsexing, propelling your always-becoming? For a story like The Fifth Wound, how much does the distinction between fiction and nonfiction matter to you, both in your writing of it and in its reception?
My lover Simone recently read Via Crucis and The Fifth Wound, and read Estrogen when I finished it last summer. Afterward they wrote me an email in which they said: “Something I want to acknowledge about The Fifth Wound, from my perspective at least, is how much it's actually an act of self-negation to include such personal stories in your writing, and how hard you usually write against that (that being the call for trans women to confess pain that may well be enjoyed by the confessor, to reveal details that are bound to be received as sordid, to tell the absolute truth so as not to be accused of fraud or deception). But I sense that perhaps you came to an impasse, where the most direct confrontation with empire was in this exact story, and so you swallowed your ego and showed yourself. I guess maybe it's also that that project (confession and self-mythologizing) had been on instagram, where it is so encouraged, and ultimately that needed to be swallowed and digested by this story.” I don’t think I could answer more precisely than this.
But if (and now I’m thinking of Glissant again, who writes in his first book, Sun of Consciousness, “I call generosity…the attempt at reconquest of all the expanses of sensibility that were abandoned to the escalation of melodramas, of ‘classical’ salons, or advertisements,” and “Today, the general character of occidental art…is absence of community… absence of a collective dimension of the literary thing”), if I were to speak in terms of a web of affinities––and I must always speak in such terms, because the major publishers of the fiction industry are always attempting to erase the fundamentally communal force of every single sentence, and replace it with the flash of the never-before-seen; and because literary agents are always talking about how much they love ‘their’ authors, but the fact is that they can’t ever truly love any of their authors because the primary function of their relationship to a book from the beginning is one of capital––in terms of affinities nourishing my inquiry into Vision, my aspiration would be to exalt, and/or to become entangled with, and/or to resist and argue with, in no particular order other than my gaze drifting over my bookshelf:
- — Poetics of Relation and Sun of Consciousness by Edouard Glissant
- — Agua Viva and Soulstorm by Clarice Lispector
- — Another Country by James Baldwin
- — The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
- — Cobra and Written on a Body by Severo Sarduy
- — Porn Carnival by Rachel Rabbit White* (@rachelrabbitwhite)
- — The Waves and Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf
- — Other Inquisitions by J.L. Borges
- — Counternarratives by John Keene*
- — The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin
- — Happy Birthday, Marsha! and Salacia by Tourmaline* (films; @tourmaliiine)
- — Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
- — Divers by Joanna Newsom (album)*
- — The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
- — Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai*
- — The earth-body work of Ana Mendieta
- — The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions by Larry Mitchell
- — The Rider by Chloe Zhao* (film)
- — The shapeshifting self-mythologies of Townes Van Zandt
- — Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig
- — A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes
- — the molten aphorisms, autotheory and abolitionist vision of Che Gossett* (@autotheoryqueen)
- — The OA created by Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling* (tv show)
- — husk project and cry rings by Caitlin Mattia (performance)
- — If Not, Winter by Sappho and Anne Carson*
- — No New Theories by Kameelah Janan Rasheed*
As for books I am currently reading––I am trying to give a sense of process, an evidence that I am speaking not in posthumous time, but right now, Sunday at 3 a.m.
- — Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann
- — Zami: a new spelling of my name by Audre Lorde
- — Shoulders by Georgia Cotrell
- — Borderlands / La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldua
- — Napkin by Carta Monir* (@cartamonir)
As for books related to this cluster of genre-affinity, books that electrified me when I read them, but that I haven’t read closely in a while and therefore can’t speak to in particular:
- — My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe*
- — Crossings by Chuang Hua
- — The Obscene Madame D by Hilda Hilst
- — Citizen by Claudia Rankine*
- — Border Districts by Gerald Murnane
- — The Loser by Thomas Bernhard
And then there’s the question of W.G. Sebald, whose reputation far outpaces his rubble of embarrassingly pastiched attempts at 19th century prose. Take The Rings of Saturn for example. Some of the historical sections, though they seem to allow for ambiguity, because he's always inserting ostensible hesitations like "though we do not know what precisely happened when..." or "we cannot say what he was thinking when…,” are actually written according to a very programmatic and myopic logic, so maybe it’s just that he’s so digestible, while appearing, through little syntactical manipulations, to be very elliptical, impartially tender, and discerning.
Virginia Woolf is a complicated case; she achieved Vision primarily in her work after the two symbol-tessellating hypercube organisms of Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse; first with what she called her playpoem, The Waves, which, by the way, often and without direct attribution quotes other poets whose phrases rise and fall like autumn leaves or silver minnows within the element––as insubstantial as a gust of wind, as persuasive and suffocating as a whirlpool of water––of her sound, which I feel as strongly and unanimously as a season; and later with Between the Acts, equally absorbent and almost fungal, like a book decomposing into the roots of honey mushrooms. Between these two books, for five years, she attempted and was defeated by The Pargiters, a book with explicitly political intentions that later bifurcated into Three Guineas and The Years, but which was initially to oscillate, chapter by chapter, between essay and fiction. I’m fascinated by this failure and have been for a long time, but all I will say is that I generally hate her essays, which are steeped in a kind of airless classicism that I think is probably the shadow of her father hanging over her imagination. Reading her essays make me want to never read her again, and that includes A Room of One’s Own. Meanwhile her novels temper and argue with that same musty quality; you can feel her thrashing, her works are thrashing against themselves, against their own forms––and The Waves is one of my three favorite books, everyone I’ve ever loved has read it; Jinny’s passage about the stag has haunted my own imagination for years, you can see me reconfiguring the image first in Estrogen and later in The Fifth Wound, in fact I use it to describe the character Ezekiel who was born from the myth I made of the poet John Bosworth in the course of our love, five years ago. John has read The Fifth Wound and his thoughts on it have altered the course of its composition; I had intended to write it in his absence––it was about the myth that burst through the space of his absence, as blood bursts from a wound––but because of his presence, as well as other unforeseen events in my recent life, my writing is pressing up against the present instant. It is happening. And that is all the better for Vision. My last word for now on Via Crucis is that it takes its form from To The Lighthouse; the sentence of Legion’s death is exactly the same as that of Mrs. Ramsay’s. And my last word on Woolf for now is that The Years contains one of the most intoxicating and oracular metaphors she ever wrote: “…the walloping Oxford bells, turning over and over like slow porpoises in a sea of oil…” It’s all there. The fatal spell of time made music. Oil spills. Taxonomy. Margaret Howe Lovatt and the suicidal dolphin who loved her.
So to answer your question about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, which I suppose is also a way of asking why, given a choice between the frames of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, have I chosen fiction? I’ve always felt at odds with the conservatism of spaces devoted to the genre, a conservatism so extreme that I’m embarrassed to talk to poets about it, to appear as parochial as fiction insofar as it is maintained and promulgated by writing seminars, MFA programs, and the apparatus of major publishing. But I write fiction because I’ve always felt at odds with it. In one sense it’s as simple as: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Whatever I’m most interested in, I tend to place myself inside of its opposite. Maybe I look for something that’s going to press on me very hard, so that my utterances––reacting to that pressure––will be extreme and elaborate, because I am guided by the image of the scorpion, or because otherwise I will feel too fatigued to speak at all, or because, having learned to act on desire (both for intimacy with others and for the elaboration of myself) not by the impassioned seeking of pleasure, or a simple delighting in pleasure, but my perpetual attempts, having been taught to experience pleasure as a threat, to extinguish it: I seek an experience of genre that replicates my experience of gender. I choose fiction because the basic unit of fiction tends to the sentence, whereas the basic unit of poetry tends to be the phrase, what they call the line. But unlike the poetic phrase, the sentence is almost always asked to be grammatical, and what is asked to be grammatical is asked to be durational, and therefore to have a linear relationship to time. Obviously I want to time travel––like anyone. More specifically, I want to access the fifth dimension. Placing myself at the opposite of the ability to do that forces me to think intensely and intricately about how I can defeat linear time. I believe I remember a former professor of mine, the poet Trace Peterson, once saying that trans women are already excessive to reality. There would be no point in attempting to make myself real by writing a memoir, because I would only then become real according to empire, which is the most depleted dream. So I’ll remain unreal. I don’t mind spending time with the Sphinx and the Siren. Someone in a workshop once said of my writing: “this doesn't feel like a character, this feels like a way of seeing,” which was intended as a criticism but was actually one of the greatest reliefs of my eight years in fiction workshops. Beyond any question of genre, what I want to write is a way of seeing.
But all this sounds so final. I’m thinking of Roland Barthes, who writes: “I should have uttered this as a dreamy speech…unfortunately I am condemned to assertion: we lack in French [and perhaps in every language] a grammatical mode which would speak lightly.” I have always—before I even wrote a single word—thought of my writing, my drafts, my letters and marginalia and ephemera, in terms of the archive to which I will be, in death, reduced; maybe this is because I’m jealous of anyone who will be able to see my life from a distance, and all at once, while I’m stuck in time and my own unknowing. I have an idea for a story about a green iridescent horse––this story would not fold kaleidoscopes into itself, but would be, itself, a kaleidoscope. I have an idea for a story about the song Townes Van Zandt was planning to write around the time of his death, a song about a gay man dying of AIDS which Townes never wrote because he himself died, but which he mentioned, once and only once, in an interview. I have an idea for a story about a transsexual astronaut making a solitary mission to Planet Nine, telling stories to a video logbook; a sort of Scheherazade facing a void instead of a blade. I am haunted and intoxicated by the thought of a planet five times the size of Earth, circling the sun unknown, unseen, hardly even felt by us, nothing more than the faint possibility of a gravitational tremor. I am haunted and intoxicated just the same by a poem in Susan Howe’s collection Debths, which she intended to be her last collection but which she has followed with another now: the poem is a xerox of Susan’s thumbprint, near the outer edge of an otherwise blank page––as if it were about to drift out of view. As if I had caught it passing by in the corner of my telescope.
John and I were always talking about how some fairy would one day study our emails, our text messages, would biographize our relationship. This was playful, of course, but also fretful––like we could only really preserve our love in an archive. Like we needed to mythologize it because living it was overwhelming, almost debilitating, certainly not sustainable. We planned to be like Vita and Virginia, but if both of them were equally significant writers.
LIT: The shade. Incredible. That’s the prescience, the premonition, that’s present in your work as well. I see it happening for you.
LIT: You’ve shared some of the rejections on Instagram, some of the more outrageous, condescending ones—“Sure you’re brilliant, but…”—written by, well, probably men, who think they get it.
One thing that I think is really special about your work is that it doesn’t pretend at effortlessness. There’s a sense of swinging for the fences, giving it your all, an ever-present energy. And that feels related to the question of the challenge of writing: to keep writing, to write with such force. And maybe that relates to what you said earlier, about repression, being pressed upon, pressing back with equal and opposite force.
LIT: …seems like it also has to do with camp, which always involves work, and queerness, and making your own sense of beauty.
LIT: I remember those moments often coinciding with direct addresses to the “you.”
Elaborating myself further, let me say that if I write a virtuosic sentence, or scene, or image, I need to express, at the same time, why that doesn’t save me, or why I can’t give that away cleanly. Because I think if I portray something especially pristinely, that then gives the reader license to treat it as a vessel for themselves, for their own catharsis. So I repurpose the unjust fate of the Danaïds; I create cracks or fissures, so when the fluid of a reader’s feeling tries to fill my vessel with itself, it won’t hold them, the fluid spills back out again. I don’t want to allow someone to feel like they’ve really empathized with a fairy’s pain and therefore they’ve absolved themselves, they’ve done some sort of political work, some cleansing of the conscience. When Anastasia says, near the end of Via Crucis, “Why speak when all you can do is bring pity upon your little fairy life? Why speak when everyone hears you only in a general way? Waiting meanwhile for someone whose ears are tuned to that perfect pitch at which your secrets sound like revelations,” that’s a little moment of me saying to anyone who isn’t a fairy: don’t you dare only use this for your own purposes. But it’s also a moment of me saying to other fairies: I know you hear me. I’m trying to create presence. That’s why I’m always returning to the polyvalent you, which is extremely specific and also so spacious: if I and my reader, if in the dimension of my story we’ve both created an illusion of presence for ourselves, then that presence has been made. Presence is what I learned most acutely from Clarice, it’s maybe her greatest gift to me. She’ll end a paragraph in Água Viva, saying, “Agora vou acender um cigarro. Talvez volte à máquina ou talvez pare por aqui mesmo para sempre,” or: “Now I'm going to light a cigarette. Perhaps I'll go back to the typewriter or perhaps I'll stop right here forever.” She’s a Sagittarius, after all; the half-resigned ember of a petulant flame. But she’s also calling our attention to the wound of the present instant, because the present is always an abyss, it’s right up against the edge of time. The clock is a nest of sutures. After I was stabbed my surgeon sutured my face with a running whip stitch, Cristina Yang’s favorite, and after a more recent unexpected injury which, because its particular qualities demand a highly intentional framing of symbology, duration and logic, I do not want to discuss except in the form of The Fifth Wound, the surgeon used another stitch, whose form I cannot read because it is inside of me; but when I sutured my own wound earlier this summer, with green thread, a yellow Bic lighter, and a sewing needle, I used an interrupted stitch. On the page there is a bar of blank space, then another block of text begins: “I came back.”
“Voltei.” That’s what waking up from anesthesia feels like, what anesthesia has felt like every one of the times I’ve been ‘under,’ three of which were in the last six months. I walked away from the page. But like Clarice, I came back. Because of her I’ve begun to think of time in terms of a page in a book. “Por que é que as coisas um instante antes de acontecerem parecem já ter acontecido? É uma questão de simultaneidade de tempo,” she writes. “Why is it that things an instant before they happen already seem to have happened? It is a question of the simultaneity of time.” The signals are all available to us, there are just too many to read: so while we may have a sense of an oncoming event, we often don’t give it our attention until after it happens, just as when we are reading a sentence in a book and our minds absorb some stray, alluring word from lower down the page, which we have seen, in some flick of a glance even smaller than an instant, without even noticing it. I’m not interested in being a prophet, who anyway only sees the future, but doesn’t invent it. If I want to capture the future, then I want a future not separate and motionless, but happening right now, just before it happens, in pulses, sparks, and sudden trills of sound: I’m interested in evidence of the infinitesimal movement of time––presence is realized when a text refuses to speak from the perspective of a tombstone; when in each present instant of each phrase, a text remains incomplete, unstable, amused, afraid and curious about itself. This means it has a sense of its own future, but no certainty. The last sentence of Água Viva is this: “O que te escrevo continua e estou enfeitiçada.” What I am writing to you goes on and I am bewitched.
That is the fifth, silent epigraph of Via Crucis. My editor at Zoetrope—Michael Ray—wanted to cut the four epigraphs and this was a really wonderful experience for me, because he’s a brilliant editor and because I got to write a 3,000-word email in response to his edits, a sort of mini-monograph on ‘my’ syntax, which really just meant talking about the syntax of all the writers I love most, many of whom I haven’t mentioned in this interview. Most of all I was thanking him for his keen ear and sometimes explaining the intentional breakages, the places I had bruised or stabbed or inverted or collapsed some sentence or structure of grammar. I was inviting him to see the ruins of the text, inviting him to interpret them not as failures of architecture, but as Sapphic gaps. I said in my notes “Elegance is an extremely powerful effect which limits others; it can create obliqueness where I want to be direct, or directness where I want to be oblique. Deliberately in this piece I inscribed a number of what could be called infelicities…” But he said that the epigraphs don’t do anything to elevate the reader, or something like that. What I said to him was, the revelation of the seed precedes the revelation of the plant. To me the four epigraphs form a single idea—a dense seed about an experience that is ecstatic, but when you aren’t able to break it open, to make more experiences from it, when it forms no constellation, it becomes a torture. I had this one professor who wanted me to cut the ending to Via Crucis, the final return to present tense. And I said, that would be giving it away, that would be an emergency exit, like the pilot who is ejected from the falling plane and is suddenly drifting gently through a blue shock of sky; but the story is the plane, and it’s going to take you down with it, into the canopy, into the tangle of branches. The ending offers the sensation of branches catching your fall, but which branches, what tree, and in what forest? You’re lost, you are nowhere, and you’re forty feet off the ground. Because the story, the story of this absolutely unrepeatable and life-changing experience, didn’t lead to more stories, to greater mysticisms, for Anastasia. The story is stuck inside a narrator who isn’t able to move past it or connect it to anything else. She’s still stuck there.
The third epigraph of Via Crucis warns: “...you just get stopped up with whatever it was that ruined you and you make it happen over and over again and your life has––ceased, really,” which is a part of a line of dialogue spoken by a character in Another Country, a novel by James Baldwin. But while Another Country is a ‘novel,’ something in its structure seems to have on its mind a different mode of reading, and a different mode of knowing, than novels usually demand. That book has been criticized for its flightiness, its driftiness, its hummingbirding––for offering intense, brief flashes of intimacy that make contact with each other, that change and are changed by each other, but do not resolve or complete each other, do not ‘add up’ to a finished story. The novel, as the reader is first meant to conceive of it, ends abruptly on page 88; that is, the character Rufus, whose gaze is its absolute center of gravity, dies (by suicide) at a moment that feels not so much emotionally as narratively sudden, like we’ve unwittingly been reading the final chapters of a novel to which the first 150 pages are missing. So when we reach the end of Rufus’ life, but more chapters follow, our conception of the story yet to unfold is utterly destabilized. The novel feels as volatile, as unpredictable as if it were happening as we read it.
We never really see Rufus again, never experience him as a gaze, even in memory; we only glimpse him, in the impressions, the half-memories, never more than a sentence or two, of those who knew him. But if Another Country’s first chapters are an ending, its last chapter is a beginning: not only the story of an arrival we do not see, because the novel ends on its cusp, as Yves, having left Paris, the city of his mother, his birth, his entire life, prepares to exit a plane in New York City, but also the first appearance, in these last few pages, of Yves’ gaze, the gaze of a person who never knew, never even saw Rufus––which is to say, the beginning of another novel.
Between that beginning-ending and ending-beginning, every time we think we are about to arrive in the certitude of a narrative (that of Vivaldo, Clarissa, Ida, or Eric) the novel shapeshifts, reframes, resets. We are shown the final days of Eric’s years abroad in France, without ever acquiring a sense of his life there with Yves, of the languorous doldrums of daily passion. We feel only the texture of its swift dissolution into twilight. On the other hand, without bearing witness to the thrill of its inception, we are sunk in the fitful murky midst of Vivaldo’s work on a novel, which never deepens into an encrypted map of Another Country, but remains stuck, shiftless––muddy as a mumble. Meanwhile we are swept up by the beginning of Ida’s singing career, the reverberation, within her voice, of what Baldwin describes as “a quality so mysteriously and implacably egocentric that no one has ever been able to name it. This quality involves a sense of the self so profound and so powerful that it does not so much leap barriers as reduce them to atoms––while still leaving them standing, mightily, where they were.” But we do not see, as in the Kunstlerroman, the full luster of her artistry; only its first breathtaking apparitions, its first cataclysmic contact with the possibility of fame. In this way Baldwin never allows us to think of Another Country as a complete, discrete object, as a definitive text, but instead as an atmosphere––as an overlapping of multiple, irresolvable, timescales. These timescales, sharing a space more than a narrative, come into contact through aporias of power, erupting at intersections of anti-Black racism, homophobia and misogyny, revealed in moments of proximity: at a party or a funeral, in the bedroom or on a stage.
So I read Another Country as an intentional whirlwind, a ‘city novel’ formed from interior and exterior montage. But beyond simply representing the fact of montage as a condition of urban modernity, Baldwin uses it to reveal the particular ways in which marginalizations, forms of privilege, and particularities of personhood complicate each character’s relationship to time; that is, by refusing to line up and elongate the segments of each character’s narrative arc so that they rise and crest and fall in parallel (or in exact inverse as in, say, Anna Karenina) the novel refuses to universalize time. For me, then, Another Country is the portal, not to ‘another time,’ but to the sensation of times, happening, always, right now. When I hold that book in my hands, I think of the carapace of a scorpion, within which waters swirl like a second pulse.
LIT: A very banal question that stuck in my mind, rewinding a bit, as you were talking about moments of rupture, moments of deceleration: Do those happen on first write-through, on the first edit? What does the editing process look like for you?
This is more than humility and more than careful withholding; more, too, than an unjust abdication of ethical responsibility, though it is all of those things: it is a destabilization, the story of an error, an intentional ruin which, like Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia, is happening within its own eternity of incompletion. The Pillow Book, like Água Viva, Sun of Consciousness and hopefully The Fifth Wound, never arrives. As Borges writes, “El concepto de texto definitivo no corresponde sino a la religion o al cansancio,” or “The concept of the definitive text corresponds only to religion or to fatigue.” The reason we cannot read any more of it at this moment is only because Sei Shonagon has temporarily run out of ink. The eternity of incompletion is, I think, what Glissant suggests when he writes: “Poets cease forthwith to consider a single poem, good or bad, to establish themselves on the contrary in a sort of duration.” Completion is only possible if a text is supposed to be singular, if it begins and ends with the inflections of its most local author. But at a slightly further distance are all the voices of that author’s library, by which I mean the proliferating, interpenetrating web of voices meeting briefly, at a point, which is a given poem by a given author at a given time. And further still is the language in which the author writes, and furthest of all is language itself, which is not, of course, a way of deferring local intention or responsibility, but a way of illuminating degrees of relation. The question of “at which point” the voices meet—this is the sum of an author’s intentions, accidents, absorptions, and irreducibilities of time and place.
The piecemeal, word-of-mouth dispersal of her work, the chaotic errance of its publication, enables Shonagon to comment on the reception of her book in the book’s very pages, as if it were aware of being read, as if it were observing, absorbing the reactions of its readers. Having established myself in a duration, that is, having thought of my writing from the beginning not in terms of pieces, poems, stories, but in terms of a biome in excess of the Borgesian map (cf. “On Exactitude in Science”) and in relation to the Faulknerian postage-stamp1 or the Sarduian echo chamber,2 that is, having thought of my writing as a proliferating and overgrown ecosystem, on which, because I spent eight years in critique, six at Yale (interspersed with enforced psychiatric suspensions) and then two more in the MFA at Hunter, my readers interstitially comment, I, too, have developed this attention to reception. Via Crucis is very aware of the fact that it’s being read (a worry or awareness ripples the surface of the text and sometimes bursts from it, before diving and disappearing again beneath that surface) and the way it’s going to be interpreted by readers who it’s not speaking directly to, readers who already aren’t interested in the baroque, readers who are accustomed to thinking of stories and poems by marginalized writers as a form of data-mining or empathy-practice or personal catharsis, a structure in which I’m also very much implicated and which I discuss in The Fifth Wound.
I’ve thought a lot about the reception of my novel, Estrogen, in workshops; in the first chapter, in the middle of an elaborate conversation about Christendom’s construction of the symbol of the Virgin Mary, and a reading of the Immaculate Conception as a miracle of trans womanhood (and while Estrogen re-presents Mary, The Fifth Wound, meanwhile, engages and elaborates the textually-Biblical and medievally-imagined womanhood of Jesus, because Christianity is a consistently gender nonconforming religion; after all, as Glissant writes in Poetics of Relation, “Within the collective books concerning the sacred and the notion of history lies the germ of the exact opposite of what they so loudly proclaim”) in the middle of that essay, Ruth breaks, interrupts herself to say that when she was three years old she saw a bikini in a shop window and, at the same moment she realized she wanted it, she realized, also, that she couldn’t have it.
(That was a moment I drew from my own memory. The bikini was green. For years after that I would tell people that they made bikinis for boys, because I assumed that if I desired it, and I was a boy, that meant they must also make bikinis for boys, which is like, really brilliant on my part, I think. I still respect that.)
Readers always gush over those sudden confessions, because I write them in a direct and intimate language, almost as a gift for having sifted their mind through layers of riddle and wreckage and whirlpool and embellishment. But then they continue, they say, “Oh, Maisie! I responded so much to this, why don’t you cut some of the tangles around it to make it more prominent?” And I’m sitting there, thinking, “darling, it’s because I placed this almost-artless expression of vulnerability at such high contrast to the surrounding text that you felt it with such force!” So in my work there’s an opacity born of a rage that rendered my sentences more and more dense, because of the energy I was compressing, hammering into an extreme, a maximal euphony––I always think of the inside of a piano, one hammer for every string. Estrogen is my most sustained attempt at music. Via Crucis is already a breakage, an off-key tune, and The Fifth Wound is somewhere between a howl, a homily, and a prism. I think I produced some really beautiful work out of a feeling of betrayal, which was, I have to admit, partially my own immaturity because I treated each of my workshops like a publication day, picking my outfit days ahead of time, so careful with my make-up, my lipstick, blush and mascara, so precise with my posture––and often, afterward, vomiting from tension. But I chose critique because that was the structure for becoming a writer, that was where I could seek a mentor and credibility and above all, audience. Never, in eight years of critiques, was there another trans woman at the workshop table. What more is there to say that wouldn’t be obvious? I was in the wrong place, I was in thrall to prestige, and I lost some of my own vision in the process, I held back little bits of topaz but I gave so many, too––I scattered my topazes onto the blank page, because I was gnawed by a doubt: what if I was being too jealous? What if they were right? So much of the force of my vision arises from the scintillations of a dialectic––spinning, grinding, pulverizing––between lavish disclosure and vital withholding, but fundamentally my words would be desiccated by the form of an explanation or a plea. At the time I had no language to describe the urgency of my discursivity, I was only following an intuition, as a sunflower turns toward the sun. To an extent I sidetracked my attention, became obsessed with making mazes, extraordinarily elaborate but always grammatical sentences, riddled with dashes and nested parentheses, so that no one could dismiss me for writing run-ons, no one could find an easy explanation for the wrongness of my writing. But I think there’s a Scorpio wisdom there; I think at its best it’s the wisdom of one who has been and will always be specimenized. There’s a reason I write at night and sleep during the day, why I only leave the house if I have a very particular destination, why I de-escalated my relationship to Instagram, and it’s hardly reducible to one or even a few isolated events, it is perpetual and reverberating––and there is much to critique my writing for, there will always be more because I look at an old piece and, while I find flashes of insight, beauty and attunement, inevitably I also find delusions, ethical failures, exoticisms, which are so clear to me now but which weren’t then. Every sentence demands my utmost ethical and visionary attention. “Empire is a perpetual deja vu. It speaks through poets as much as politicians, it speaks in a tuneless recursive monologue that I hear as I write to you. Sometimes I’m halfway through a sentence before I realize that I’m transcribing another one of its traps.” That’s from The Fifth Wound. I think, at first, my writing partook (to use Glissant’s word) more of a petrified classicism than what he calls “the manifest and integrating violence of contaminations.” As I began to write Estrogen, which is a novel about a separatist commune of transsexual women in the West Texas desert who have formed a liturgy around the consumption of estrogen, and who call themselves the Daughters of Aphroditos (“a frankincense-scented isomer of Aphrodite who possessed both breasts and cock, and to whom a cult––whose acolytes, writes Philostratus, were fairies and faggots––was once devoted on the isle of Cyprus, in the epoch before the rise of Christendom”) I felt my own writing demanding me to consider what I could possibly mean by commune, considering how few trans women or even trans people to whom I was, at the time, close or even proximate, two and a half years ago. So after a life lived in drifting and distance, my writing called on me to seek out spaces of intersubjectivity. Now my stories circulate quite a lot before they’re published, in full and partial drafts. But the intentional self-delusion of DNC book-club liberalism is to frame reading and writing as politically complete acts in themselves, rather than as sites of reflection, solitude and ritual continuous with interpersonal forms of care, conversation, ritual and resistance. Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “Abolition requires that we change one thing, which is everything. Contemporary prison abolitionists have made this argument for more than two decades. Abolition is not absence, it is presence. What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, experiments and possibilities.” So I’ve been seeking out, in my work and in my life, the fragments and pieces of the future in the present––but perpetually questioning my whiteness, because whiteness, via the cultural production of empire, is always trying to delude itself into thinking it is, along the very axis of its whiteness, beneficial to those it harms most; put simply, I have been in the perpetual process of refusing the imperial dream of the white savior, and the perpetual process of developing an ideology of the accomplice. I did not hear that Ruth Wilson Gilmore line for the first time from one of the books in my library. Later, when I sought out the interview, I encountered this vital insight into the possibility of visionary urgency within the form of a piece. Speaking about artist geographer Trevor Paglen’s book Invisible, she says: “He set out years ago to figure out how to use the tools of geography, the tools of surveillance, and the tools of surveying to ‘see’ U.S. military black sites around the planet and photograph them—to show us what we otherwise could not see. For me this picture has also a strong metaphorical value in that I imagine it to be actively and antagonistically the contradiction of what it represents. Therefore, it is a picture of us coming to meet ourselves in the abolitionist future.” Those last two lines describe what I would now say is the aspiration of my sense of vision. The polychromatic density of The Fifth Wound attempts to approximate that aspiration.
LIT: Borges told of a universal library, objective but damned. In our world, libraries are limited and controlled and never neutral, aren’t they?
LIT: Even though I’m not someone you should be listening to as an authority, because you’ve received so much compressed rejection, I want to say that I really do think that your stories are remarkable. Just last month, reading Via Crucis rescued me from a deep depressive episode. And I’m not sure if I’m even the fairy audience that it deserves, exactly. Which I find concerning and interesting and complicated. I don’t want to presume that I am.
“To explain my love does not require that I understand the explanation. So when I tell my story, then you will know why I loved you, but still I will not know. Just as I can write a book about life and still not know what life is. But when you read it you will say: ah, so that’s it. Because my vision was given to me in scraps, and so I wrote it in scraps. But it was given to you like a pebble is given, or the dawn. It was given to you like the gust of a great wing. All at once.”
As I work on new stories, I often find myself remembering older orts and fragments, regretting that they’re rotting in a drawer, and then realizing no one has seen them before––realizing I can recover some forgotten scrap of self into my present and have it received, fifth-dimensionally, as if it were happening now. Grey’s Anatomy has provided my mental image for the interval of uncertainty: during a transplant, the surgeons, having completed their sutures, stand over their patient to see if the donor organ turns pink, an indication of blood flow. Similarly I take a chunk of older text and tissue it into my story, attempting to clip and join the shredded ends along a seam. For a moment I sit and stare, and if I get a certain feeling––a pinking of the aura of the language, a new, emergent sense of meaning––then I sigh in relief. Ah, it takes.
Thank you for your questions, Jordan.
1. “With Soldiers’ Pay I found out writing was fun. But I found out afterward not only that each book had to have a design but the whole output or sum of an artist’s work had to have a design. Beginning with Sartoris I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and that by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top. I can move these people around like God, not only in space but in time too. The fact that I have moved my characters around in time successfully, at least in my own estimation, proves to me my own theory that time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the momentary avatars of individual people. There is no such thing as was—only is. If was existed, there would be no grief or sorrow. I like to think of the world I created as being a kind of keystone in the universe; that, small as that keystone is, if it were ever taken away the universe itself would collapse. My last book will be the Doomsday Book, the Golden Book, of Yoknapatawpha County. Then I shall break the pencil and I’ll have to stop.”
2. While he uses this phrase in interviews to constellate a cluster of effects, including the reappearance of objects central to one novel as ephemera in another, or the sudden irruption of scenes from previous novels into later novels, but from the perspective of other characters, he also uses it in personal correspondence. Here is a signed copy of the French translation of his book Colibri, which reads: “A George Raillard, cette chambre d’echo ou vole un Colibri…,” or “To George Raillard, this echo chamber where a hummingbird flies…”