Monday, October 06, 2008

Pulling it together

Pulling Taffy came out in 2003, but I wrote it from 1995 to 2000, that’s how publishing works. Writing was always important to me, I definitely prioritize my relationships and direct action activism, which felt more crucial or immediate. As for activism, in the early ‘90s it had been ACT UP in San Francisco where I met so many incredible activists dedicated to combining an analysis of race and class and gender so that they were inextricable from politics around sexuality and AIDS; this was an ACT UP chapter centering around universal healthcare, prisoners with AIDS, women with AIDS, and needle exchange, not the narrow politics of access to drugs. From ACT UP I got involved in all sorts of other groups focused around reproductive justice, police brutality, US imperialism, and then there was a period where I had to stop because I realized that at meetings when everyone would tear each other to shreds I would just take everyone’s anger and put it inside me and respond in this super-calm way and that’s what I did with my father’s rage.

When I got back to direct action it was the late-’90s in New York and a group called Fed Up Queers which challenged the tyranny of Giuliani’s New York, then Gay Shame which was a once-a-year challenge to the consumerism of pride celebrations, and then when I was back on the West Coast I helped create Gay Shame there and we turned it into a year-round direct action extravaganza dedicated to exposing all hypocrites. And when this all really intersected with my writing was when I started to edit That’s Revolting!, an anthology challenging the violence of a gay establishment obsessed with obtaining straight privilege at all cost. This is the book that maybe made me represent something, and I know that sounds strange but I think it’s true, I mean in the realm of public perception.

I wanted to break through the clampdown of a corporate, consumer-friendly gay identity on the queer imagination, challenging the hypocritical priorities of gay powerbrokers – marriage, military service, adoption, ordination into the priesthood, gentrification, willful participation in US imperialism and on and on. In my relatively short time as an activist, I had already witnessed the emergence of these grotesque priorities—marriage and military inclusion, instead of marriage and military abolition – and I wanted to invoke the more radical histories of queer resistance. And then my next book, Nobody Passes, in some ways came out of That’s Revolting – if That’s Revolting centered around the violence of gay assimilation, Nobody Passes examined passing – across all identity categories – as a means through which assimilation sometimes takes place, and is allowed to remain invisible. I wanted to expose all hierarchies of belonging.

But wait – this is where I got into trouble again, yes niche marketing tyranny but from the other direction! The publisher, Seal Press, who had approached me, wanted to make sure that all of the pieces were “relevant to women.” They wanted to make sure everything was gender-related, as if race and class and the big passing crises of the moment – immigration, racial profiling, and anti-Arab hysteria could ever not be about gender as well. As someone assigned the label “male” at birth, I was unable to claim feminist authenticity of the surface variety. And so I was subjected to a passing crisis from the other direction!

Backing up a bit too a few years earlier, I had other passing problems that have dramatically shifted my writing process. In 2000, when I was subjected to the possibility of living in New York City for my fourth summer, I fled all of that horrible humidity and pollution so deep it was hard even to get to the subway, fled for the beach in the gay resort town of Provincetown where I could still turn tricks for a living and I was doing all this exercise and I started to get this pain in my wrists right where I held the handlebars of the bike I rode around town. I thought it was just a muscle that I hadn’t used before and it would get better, but then it got so bad that I couldn’t hold the handlebars, couldn’t chop vegetables, couldn’t open doors, and then that pain developed from repetitive stress injury symptoms to fibromyalgia, which basically means pain all over my body, an inability to get restful sleep, hypersensitivity to scents and temperature and movement, a reactive digestion, and sinus pain and everything wraps around the other until I can hardly function.

So I couldn’t write the way I used to write. I edited That’s Revolting and Nobody Passes with all this pain, but for my personal writing I couldn’t go to that frantic place in order to get it down I mean it was still in my head but it wasn’t physically possible to connect the thoughts with the page in that way. But I needed to continue writing. At first I felt overwhelmed and horrified, but then I decided to try to see my limitations as a strength, rather than a weakness, and to write two paragraphs a day with no intention of plot or structure, and then take a look at the whole thing when I had 200 pages. I wanted to see if this experiment could expand the manic style and engagement of my writing, rather than leaving me feeling stifled. I wanted to see if I can do what I usually did for five or six pages, but continue it for 200. Actually expand the whole idea by fracturing the writing even more and so I would hear something interesting on the radio or someone would call me and say something disastrous or I would think of a funny phrase that rhymed, and I would put that all down, into the novel, because I knew it was a novel right away it was something I was working on as one flow.

After two years, I had over 400 pages, and I took a look at the whole thing — what was amazing was that some sort of plot actually emerged! The repetition of voice and character and theme and sound and spark led to a wacky and expansive narrative arc, nonlinear and revelatory. I'm a neurotic editor, so of course I spent another few years cutting anything that got in the way of the voice, but allowing six different things to happen in one paragraph and it ended up almost like music the way it builds up to a crescendo and then falls and then builds. If Pulling Taffy is about searching for home and not necessarily finding it, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly is about the overwhelm the everyday --when you get to a place where nothing in your life is exactly coming together, where it often feels devastating just to engage with the outside world , and where it's only sudden moments of connection or insight that mean anything — the world is falling apart and San Francisco is falling apart and the narrator's apartment is falling apart, and I leave the reader to pull it all together. Or leave it.

(this is the end of that piece I might be writing as an introduction for university events)


matty said...

I am so loving your new book!

We are so blessed to have your voice out here.

Sending you a kiss -- and, now, I'm headed to the beach to think.

love and kisses,

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Matty, it's so great to hear from you, and I'm so glad you're enjoying the book -- enjoy the beach!

Love --

Tony said...


I can't wait to read your new book!

Lots of Love,


mattilda bernstein sycamore said...