feature image via the LA Times.
Here’s what I thought: Wow. Wow wow wow wow. Let me tell you, it has been a privilege to interface with the part of Maggie Nelson’s brain that wrote this book. I know book clubs and book club discussions aren’t necessarily about whether we liked or disliked the book, but I must say before anything else that I loved this. My urge to lick the cover (as previously mentioned) was well-justified by the gorgeous prose and brain-fueling theory. This book was sort of like hearing Judith Butler hum heavy academic words through a poetry kazoo.
I was super privileged to catch up with Maggie Nelson, the amazing author and critic behind ‘The Argonauts,’ a book about queer family making, identity and change. And one million other things, seriously. This book is jam packed with awesome. Unsurprisingly, so is Maggie Nelson.
This interview was edited for length, flow and to provide contextual links.
Ali Osworth: Let’s start with a combined question from me and Maddie Taterka (contributing editor): Sometimes the online queer community can be a little frustrating because there seems to be an increasing idea that one narrative is “correct” while others are “incorrect,” or that there is only one version of queer vocabulary and all other usages are incorrect. You address this tension between the need for labels and the need to throw off labels at several points in the Argonauts. Early on in the book:
When making your butch-buddy film, By Hook or By Crook, you and your cowriter, Silas Howard, decided that the butch characters would call each other “he” and “him,” but in the outer world of grocery stores and authority figures, people would call them “she” and “her.” The point wasn’t that if the outer world were schooled appropriately re: the characters’ preferred gender pronouns, everything would be right as rain. Because if the outsiders called the characters “he,” it would be a different kind of he. Words change depending on who speaks them; there is no cure. The answer isn’t just to introduce new words (boi, cis-gendered, andro-fag) and then set out to reify their meanings (though obviously there is power and pragmatism here). One must also become alert to the multitude of possible uses, possible contexts, the wings with which each word can fly. (8)
And later in the book:
How to explain — ‘trans’ may work well enough as shorthand, but the quickly developing mainstream narrative it evokes (“born in the wrong body,” necessitating an orthopedic pilgrimage between two fixed destinations) is useless for some—but partially, or even profoundly, useful for others? That for some, ‘transitioning’ may mean leaving one gender entirely behind, while for others — like Harry, who is happy to identify as a butch on T — it doesn’t? I’m not on my way anywhere, Harry sometimes tells inquirers… How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality — or anything else, really — is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours? (52-53)
How can the queer community resist becoming a hegemony with regards to who can speak/who cannot speak, who can have a story and whose story is deemed inexpedient, and who has the right language versus the wrong language? Have you found tools to explain breathing into the grey areas and accepting nuance, irresolution and imperfection?
Maggie Nelson: I hear you. What you describe is one of the many reasons why I don’t feel constitutionally able to interface with online debates/disputes.
I think this is a hard moment in the queer community around language and the policing of language (though not all that dissimilar from the 90s, when some people were up in arms about “political correctness” — my college, Wesleyan, was in fact the inspiration for the spoof P. C. U.). But I can’t wade into these debates very far, because on the one hand, I care so very much about social change, and I understand how making changes in our language is a deep part of that. On the other hand, I am so much more interested in aversion, disindentification, contamination, fugitivity, nuance, and self-questioning than I am in self-righteousness, censoriousness, or “schooling,” so I have to find arenas of expression or exchange that feel right to me. Books generally feel right to me. They give a lot of space for an idea, for ideas. Anyway, generally speaking, I’m with John Waters, who recently called his whole life a trigger warning. In fact he said he was thinking about changing his name to Trigger Warning, which he called “a great drag king name.” Amen.
I think being a teacher (hopefully) gives one some skills on this account. Because when a student says something in class that’s totally fucked up, as a teacher, your job isn’t to take offense and shut the person down; it’s to figure out how to turn it into a learning moment for the class in a way that isn’t shaming for the speaker but also doesn’t let the fucked-up comment just slip by. So you might say, “OK, Jenny thinks X. Does anyone else agree? Disagree?” and give the students the space to air it out. I try to take this mode with me out of the classroom, with varying degrees of success. Also, it’s important to remember that any of us can be the person making the fucked-up remark. This culture is all fucked up, and we are its constituent bodies. And, of course, some shit really does need to be called out (go Bree Newsome!).
As The Argonauts makes clear, I’m really stuck on the importance of specificity. For example, as the mainstream narrative around the word “trans” congeals, many friends of mine are starting to walk away from it, essentially saying/ feeling, “that’s not MY trans.” Ditto with the “love wins” slogan on the day the marriage equality decision came down — so many people I know — myself included — felt happy, but also alienated and bewildered by that slogan, like — that’s so not my version of what just happened, or what I hope just happened. Visibility makes important, even crucial things happen, but if extraordinary effort isn’t made to preserve the space for radical specificity, people will peel off. Maybe certain people are going to peel off anyway, which is probably all for the best. You know, keep moving.
You speak about the perception of heteronormativity in family-making throughout The Argonauts. What/who have your role models been in queer family making? What do you think we as a community can do to create space for queer families in our collective narrative? (I ask because it’s something we at Autostraddle are actively trying to do.)
Seems like what you’re doing is great. More stories, more specificities. The trick with celebrating queer family making, so it seems to me, is not to fall into the “reproductive futurism” trap of treating the raising of children as an exalted version of kinship more deserving of privileges than other forms of relation. This is going to take some resistance, since one effect of the marriage equality decision is going to be that more people will have access, through marriage, to much-needed benefits to children/families, which will in turn incentivize queers with kids, or with plans to have kids, to marry. The effects of this incentive aren’t knowable right now, but certainly it could dull people to the injustice of channeling basic care via couplehood — you know, the whole “I got mine/ we got ours” thing. But I definitely don’t think it follows that those benefits can or should be turned down — it seems to me perfectly asinine to ask queer families to shoulder more vulnerability and endangerment just to prove a point. It’s just that we can’t relax into those benefits and think the current system is anywhere close to delivering justice.
At the same time, sometimes queers without kids (and non-queers without kids) can be a little clueless or even belligerent about the radical needs that children and their caretakers have, perhaps unintentionally acting out a crappy neoliberal attitude like, “you chose to have a kid, so why are you complaining about inadequate healthcare, inadequate parental leave policies, inadequate pay, inadequate daycare, inadequate paid time for the caretaking of others, the difficulty of breastfeeding/pumping, and so on? You chose this bed, so now lie in it.” Capitalism so wants us all to believe that we all made these inadequate beds and that we should just lie in them, even if it means we die there. People who choose not to have children and recognize themselves in any way in the above script should probably spend some time thinking about the shape of a society in which all living beings get their needs met, which includes small people and the humans charged with their caretaking. They should also be big enough to admit that they may not know the scope, nature, or intensity of those needs if raising children hasn’t been a part of their lives.
I’d love to talk about the term “autotheoretical” for a second. I’ve read many pieces of criticism that could be considered a hybrid of autobiography and theory, yet I’ve never encountered a book where so many people used this term to describe it — in fact, to be honest, I’d never encountered the term before The Argonauts (which might be a failing on my reading). Do you have any insight as to why The Argonauts in particular retains this label, where other texts might simply be called autobiography or social criticism? If you were to recommend books for our readers who want to dive more deeply into autotheoretical texts, what would those books be?
People are using the term because the book jacket offers it up as the term of choice! It’s important to offer up some other options, I’ve found, if you don’t want your work repeatedly shoveled in with the “memoir” category, or “women’s studies,” or whatever. I stole the term from Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie, but I’ve since been told it emanates from a feminist scholar named Stacey Young. I don’t know the exact history, but so many great books could fall under this category: Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Patricia Williams’ Alchemy of Race and Rights, Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory, Wayne Koestenbaum’s Hotel Theory, The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, and Humiliation, some Frantz Fanon, Ellen Willis, and more.
I love asking authors to make reading lists, if you couldn’t tell. What are your must-read books written by queer people?
I’d kind of prefer “queer books,” just to make it large. Oh my goodness, it’s harder to find books I love that aren’t queer. Anything by James Baldwin, Eileen Myles, Violette Leduc, Herve Guibert, Beatriz Preciado, Frank O’Hara, David Wojnarowicz, Audre Lorde, Leslie Feinberg, Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Virginia Woolf, Ali Leibegott, CAConrad, the list goes on and on.
And last (but certainly not least) what are you reading right now?
I’m reading everything by or about Carolee Schneemann, in order to write something about her. More than Meat Joy, hurrah!
If you haven’t yet read The Argonauts, we strongly encourage you to do so because it’s real swell and will make your brain AND heart grow three sizes too large (in a healthy way, not a scary way).