Feature image photo of Morgan Thomas by Ezra Carlsen
More than once while reading Manywhere, Morgan Thomas’ debut short story collection, I interrupted what my partner was doing so I could read her a passage out loud. Thomas’ breathtaking prose sings while somehow also being precise and measured. More than once while reading, I gasped. More than once, I stopped at the end of a sentence to stare into the middle distance for a while and ponder. More than once, I was angry at Thomas for being so talented, jealous that I’d never write fiction this well, disappointed that there weren’t 25 more stories to read. More than once, I was moved to tears.
The stories in Manywhere concern flawed and complicated characters and communities, primarily in Louisiana and elsewhere in the American South. The characters are thrust into crucial turning points in their lives and experiences of gender, typically due to misunderstandings that illuminate an unspoken desire: to somehow transcend their circumstances.
A photographer waits at an Ellis Island photo booth for the arrival of a man they believe to be their long-dead ancestor. A trans woman’s coworkers believe she is pregnant. A young transient is mistaken for a vampire. The great-great-grandchild of a midwife investigates the seemingly impossible stories passed down about her. An actor becomes obsessed with finding the extant letters of the historical figure they’ve been impersonating.
In these pivotal moments, they grapple with the ways the past seems to be repeating, cycling, evading, and/or animating their lives. They either engage with or are engaged by trans and genderqueer history: sometimes they literally seek out an ancestor, and sometimes a connection with one is thrust upon them. Sometimes the past seems destined to repeat, other times it spills through their grasping fingers like sand.
I spoke with Thomas from their home in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where they live with their partner and 26 plants, about the book, the draw toward trans and genderqueer history, and how they’re still working through the questions their stories both ask and answer.
Abeni: The stories in Manywhere feel very grounded in time and in place — whether it’s the present and the past, or the South and Louisiana in particular. Was that thematic thread intentional? What was the process of putting these stories into this collection?
I had written three of the stories, and realized that several of the questions within them were similar and that they seemed to be in conversation with each other. They were all asking about lineage about gender and sexuality, and about how we create our own self-mythologies. I wanted to further explore those questions, and that’s how I first started to conceive of the book. I was really interested in writing about specifically Southern and genderqueer characters, in part because I felt like I hadn’t seen myself in both the literature and in the sort of “mythos” of the South. So I wanted to fill in that gap.
When I began writing these stories I was thinking about my own gender and my own sexuality, and seeking models for those identities in the world around me, in my contemporary communities, and often coming up a little bit short. A friend told me about Frank Woodhull, and I found myself really fascinated with Woodhull’s story — bordering on a sort of obsession. I read everything that I could about Woodhull, seeing myself in a way that I wasn’t necessarily seeing myself in other people and characters around me. And then, increasingly, I became distrustful of the impulse to claim Woodhull as a genderqueer ancestor, when I don’t know anything about how Woodhull thought about gender when Woodhull lived in 1908, which is well before modern genderqueer discourse emerged.
And so I think the stories attempt to locate that desire, that impulse to find genderqueer models in historical figures, or in other people that we’re meeting in our lives. And then simultaneously I hope to critique and distrust that impulse, or at least ask questions about the ethical complexity of actually saying, “Oh yes, this person who lived in 1908 is similar to me in these ways. And I can model myself after this person in these specific ways.” So many of the stories in Manywhere, I think, are attempting to ask those questions about the stories that we tell about ourselves.
I feel like a lot of trans writers are working in speculative fiction because of the limitless possibility of the future. But trans and gender nonconforming history is really present in this collection. I even found myself researching after reading a story to see if some of the folks mentioned — Philippa Cook or Sylvia Summer, for example — were real! Why is engaging with our history important?
One of the ethical complications of thinking about these historical figures as models for gender identity is that it posits a lack of change across time. That our current conceptions of gender, our current conceptions of sexuality, as limited and limiting as they are, can be sort of anachronistically imposed on the past, which I think then potentially limits our ability to imagine the future. I want to understand our current conceptions of gender and sexuality as very specific to this moment. I think that that opens up a lot of questions about the past and a lot of possibilities for the future.
It feels fundamentally hopeful to be really specific in the ways that I’m engaging with these trans and genderqueer ancestors. And I think that that’s also the province of fiction. All of the “historical” characters in Manywhere are based on historical figures, but because I’m working in fiction, I am able to fill in historical gaps. To write into these places where the histories have been lost or erased, and then also, I think, to be a little bit freer with the ways that I’m thinking about and conceptualizing gender and sexuality for these historical figures, without holding myself to saying, “This was an actual person who lived in history.” Therefore if I’m getting something wrong, it doesn’t do a sort of violence to them. By imagining them in fiction and by writing through the lens of these narrators, I think I free myself up to play a little bit more within these realms of identity.
I’m paraphrasing you here: “An anachronistic imposition of our current conceptions of reality on the past can prevent us from envisioning a future that’s different from our current conceptions of the present.” How do you think doing the kind of work that you’re doing can help us envision the future, or build a future that’s different from the present?
I think that potentially by understanding lineage, by understanding that these identities are not new, that they’re not a fad, that we’ve existed for centuries, just understanding the abundance and expansiveness of gender in history, to me suggests that there is a space for even more abundance and expansiveness in the future.
An indigenous friend and colleague described it to me like an experience of historically having a wide diversity of gender identities [Note: Thomas indicates a parabolic shape with their hands]. And then after colonization hitting a sort of low point. And then expecting a sort of renewed abundance in the future – and seeing Two Spirit and Indigiqueer people as really leading that type of resurgence through activism. And, that is not my history, and that is not like my community — I’m white and a settler. But I think similarly, if we can understand that there is an abundance of genderqueer and queer people historically, it allows us to map abundance into the future.
A lot of people early in their gender journeys hear that they aren’t trans “enough,” or not in the right ways, based on what people have done in the past. In a lot of ways, young people need trans history to feel permission to exist. But that can also present the obligation to conform to that history. How do you understand that tension?
I think seeking historical models and figures is in no way a panacea. I think that both in my own lived experience and also in these stories, it’s often a sort of response to feeling a dearth of those models in community or in the world immediately around us. And it can be an act of desperation. I don’t think that any of the characters in these stories come to a fundamentally affirming understanding of their own gender by looking at these historical figures. So I think, and hope, that the stories in many ways take a relatively skeptical view of the usefulness of those models, for just those reasons.
And also, I think it’s important to say that in no way was 1908 a wonderful, prime time to be a trans or genderqueer person. I’m so glad that I am living in 2022. And that’s a sort of truth of models in general, and of the ways that we construct ourselves in general. I would not be able to be the genderqueer person that I am without models in my life. Without activists in history who created space for me. And also, those models are themselves sometimes limiting. For myself, it’s been a journey of years, I think, to engage with a model, and then engage with another model, and engage with another model, and end up with this sort of constellation of genderqueer community. And then find myself within that constellation.
And I think I’m only really now getting to a place where I feel like I’m able to think about the word “genderqueer” or about gender itself as something that can be affirmational in my life rather than something aspirational. But that’s something that I still wrestle with. Like, how do we affirm our inherent gender within a world that I think is constantly asking us to sort of define and describe it in relation to all of these other categories?
How do you approach the pressure or obligation to represent trans or gender non-conforming people in your work positively or sympathetically? Do you feel that pressure and is that something you’re trying to address — or reject?
I feel really grateful to the incredible writers who have represented Two Spirit, trans, and genderqueer communities and have really laid a foundation of representation that takes a lot of the weight off of me, I think.
In part, I think it’s just about humanness and about recognizing the complexity within any character and the complexity of desire. It’s also about positionality — again, I’m a white, settler writer. And a lot of the characters that I’m writing are also white settlers. As I was doing research and seeking out historical figures, without exception the individuals that I found were complicit in projects of colonization and slavery and continued legacies of racial oppression. To sort of “heroize” them, I would’ve had to look away from those things and that felt like it would’ve been just a continuation of the deeply unethical ways that I think white people have rendered history for hundreds of years.
So it felt important to me to engage both with the ways in which these characters were marginalized because of their gender and identities, and also with the ways in which these characters had privilege.
I think about Sylvia Summer in the story “The Expectation of Cooper Hill.”
If we’re thinking about “good person, bad person,” then a level of ambivalence is intentional. I think that some of the moral “cloudiness” is the narrator themself, wrestling with that ancestry and that history, and having a relative unwillingness to look directly at it.
And, if I think about the characters that are most morally unethical in that story, I’m thinking about the white doctors who came and “held the midwives to account” for breaking these silly rules that the doctors made. And all of this is building on the true history of the earliest abortion legislation, which came not so much from Christianity or from churches, but from white male doctors who wanted to move into the field of gynecology and saw Black midwives as professional competition. So I was trying to render some of that history on the page, but deliberately wanted to center a character who was somewhere in between in terms of the ethics.
Another story that approaches this moral/ethical ambiguity is “Bump.” [Note: in it, a trans woman essentially fakes a pregnancy by wearing a prosthetic pregnancy bump.] I think this story is one that some trans women might take umbrage with: “Why are you presenting a stereotypically delusional trans woman who wishes she could be pregnant?” I’m curious how you approach that consideration when you’re writing stories like this one.
I think that “Bump,” if it’s succeeding, is directly in conversation with questions of reality, and to my mind, Louie isn’t delusional. I think my hope is that a reader will see that the ways pregnancy is conceived of by our cisgender heteronormative world are exceedingly constrained. And that Louie is engaged in an experience that is equally real — so there isn’t this sense of delusion, or of one person having the ability to determine what is “real.”
I wrote “Bump” as a way of trying to write into this question I have, that I still can’t answer, which is: How do I know, how does anyone know, if a gendered experience is “real” or “not real?” Or, what does “realness” even mean with regard to gender?
The more useful question, that I think Louie asks and answers, is: Within the constraints of cisheteronormativity, what are my desires around gender and how can I move towards them? And she’s able to take action. And to me that’s a sort of victory. I think of the story as being sort of celebratory in that way, although also complicated and not solely a celebration.
Things that trans people experience are pathologized, even when there are entirely equivalent experiences that cis people have. “Hysterical pregnancy” is something cis women have experienced forever. And yet if a trans woman experiences it, it’s evidence that she’s “crazy.”
I got questions about that story calling Louie “performative.” But everyone performs gender all the time! It’s specific to Louie being a trans woman that it’s called “performative.”
Do you think there’s potential for us to lose something the more “normalized” we become? The better we “pass,” the more we’re understood, the more representation we have, the more that we’re able to be like cis people and have experiences that are “just like” cis people’s?
I’m thinking about the experience recently of watching, I think, an objectively bad Christmas movie with my partner a few months ago, and having this sort of reaction. Like, “Oh, no, Hallmark movies can happen to us too!” Being queer doesn’t save me from a Hallmark movie. So I’ve had these sorts of emotional reactions in these moments, where I’ve wanted to differentiate myself from cisgender, heteronormative society.
However, more importantly, I don’t think there’s any wrong answer around desire, especially around the body and experiences that are affirming for individuals. I think nearly anything that affirms an individual’s experience of gender, I support.
One of the things that feels important to remember on this question specifically, though, is how money and privilege tie into all of this. Especially if we’re thinking about gender-affirming procedures, they’re just not accessible.
Manywhere is your debut collection, and it comes out on January 25. How do you feel? And who should we be reading after we finish it?
I feel so many things. I feel a lot of gratitude, especially, to the writers — Joshua Whitehead, River Solomon, Akwaeke Emezi, Abbey Mei Otis, and Jordy Rosenberg — those are all Two-spirit, trans, and genderqueer writers who I think laid a sort of foundation for Manywhere. Daphne Palasi Andreades’ incredible book, which just came out, Brown Girls. And Riss Neilson’s YA book Deep in Providence, Sam Cohen’s Sarahland, and Venus Thrash’s poetry collection The Fateful Apple are all really beautiful.
What are you working on now, or next?
My next project is an ecological novel that follows two siblings on a road trip. It asks what white migration, driven by climate change, might look like in the 21st century. And then I’m working on a collaboration with a visual artist, which is using the lens of baptism to think about evangelical Christianity in the South, gender fluidity, and ecologies of watersheds.
Manywhere comes out tomorrow, January 25.
Thank you for this awesome interview – pre-ordered because this book sounds fascinating!
I was lucky enough to get an early copy, and I’m ///smitten/// — this interview is so good it makes me want to go back and reread the whole collection again from the beginning!
loved this interview and LOVE the whole book! def recommend it to all lovers of short fiction. “Bump” is available online: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/06/morgan-thomas-bump/618707/
Loved this interview, gave me lots of think about. Will definitely be checking out the book!
Fantastic interview Abeni! This book sounds so wonderful.
Oh, wow, thank you for this beautiful, insightful introduction to Morgan Thomas Abeni. Also, gender/queer characters with complex identities in the american South is *literally* my favourite genre – ordered and eagerly awaiting <3 <3