The Shorty Q&A With Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

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Matthew Bernstein Sycamore was one of the early organizers of Gay Shame which, among other things, takes a stance against marriage in all forms.
She is the author of the novel Pulling Taffy, as well as the editor of four nonfiction anthologies. Her latest novel So Many Ways To Sleep Badly is a stream-of-consciousness roll through the underbelly of San Francisco, one that tourists and many residents never see: tweakers, tricks, pimps, and johns roam the streets till dawn then show up the next day for yoga, go shopping (or occasionally shoplift) at Whole Foods, and hang out with the sea lions.

Rumpus: So how was the tour for So Many Ways to Sleep Badly? What is one of the weirdest look or comment someone said to you on this tour?

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Well, the weirdest thing was when I had these really attentive audiences that stared at me like they didn’t know what was going on, and then everyone asked questions about politics but not about the book. But reviewers said much stranger things just before the tour. There was the Publishers Weekly review that said something about “the narrator, who may or may not be genetically female.” Genetically female! I mean, really, let’s not stop with the more common but still problematic “biologically female” – the invasion must go into the microscopic!

Rumpus: You were in Canada on Election Day. How was that?

Sycamore: I loved Canada on election day—anything to get away from the U.S. obsession with false hope!

Rumpus: So Many Ways to Sleep Badly is your second novel, and is written in a very stream-of-conscious voice, but there is a narrative arc, and I’m wondering, how deliberate was that choice?  Was it difficult to know when to end the book?

Sycamore: Well, I decided to write two paragraphs a day because of chronic pain that left me unable to write in the way that I used to do it—like I would die if I didn’t get all the information onto the page right away. I wanted to continue writing, and also expand the possibilities of my writing. I did originally write with no intention of plot or structure, and I would take any random thing that seemed interesting and put it on the page — quotes from the radio, things people said on the street, phone conversations, all the minutia of daily existence — something that sounded interesting because it rhymed, a good read, all sorts of things. As I started to write, I did notice themes that emerged and so I would focus on those items — roaches, rats, pigeons, the interactions of sex for play and sex for pay and when you can’t tell the difference, chronic pain, Whole Foods, exhaustion, war, music, incest memories, moments of hope, the overwhelm of the everyday — and so I definitely focused on the repetition of these elements, and it’s that repetition that I think gives the book its narrative arc. Of course, I also edited it at least nine times, from start to finish, and what’s most important to me is voice and so I was entirely ruthless about what I cut out that didn’t further the voice, anything that felt like it impeded the flow. I did keep writing and writing, so actually I have maybe 200 more pages of something and I wish I could tell you how exactly I decided to end it where it ends but… it was mostly about the crescendo of the language and the way you’re surrounded and can’t get out.

Rumpus: I know you recently wrote about Proposition 8 on your blog, and you’re probably sick of talking about it, but if you could indulge me a little, isn’t the question a semantic one? In other words wouldn’t it be preferable to remove the word “marriage” from this debate completely? Wouldn’t it be better to replace the word “marriage” with a universal legal term to represent both kinds of unions?

Sycamore: What would be preferable is to fight for universal access to the benefits that marriage can sometimes help procure – housing, healthcare, food, someone to hug you at night, citizenship – everyone should have access to these basic needs, it shouldn’t be conditional on any sort of state contract whatsoever.

Rumpus: Not everybody is a rebel.  (By the very definition of the word, not everyone can be.) Some people are fine being part of the status quo. Isn’t it their right to remain complacent just as it’s your right to fuck shit up?

Sycamore: Complacency isn’t a right, it’s a privilege. I’m interested in accountability and I’m interested in building a culture of defiance. I think it’s perfectly fine if people choose conventional life choices but it’s important to figure out a way to do the least damage rather than the most. We all make horrible compromises in order to survive in this monstrous world but the point is to make the fewest compromises possible, not to push everyone aside in order to grab any privilege we can get our hands on and then police the borders to keep out those who have less access. If the status quo is a rabid, militaristic, imperialist project camouflaged by the illusion of everyday normalcy, then yes, it’s definitely a problem if you’re a willful part of it.

Rumpus: I wanted also to give you a chance to talk about Prop K. It received so little media play. It would protect prostitutes and sex workers from abusive behavior and it failed. Do you think another Prop K will resurface?

Sycamore: Prop K would have decriminalized prostitution, certainly a first step in safety and empowerment for the widest variety of sex workers – and yes, this is an issue that will certainly continue to resurface.

Rumpus: How doomed is San Francisco? Any recommendations for how the city can pull itself back from gentrification?

Sycamore: It’s sad to me that San Francisco as a destination for marginalized queers, freaks, outsiders, and outcasts to find each other and figure out a way to cope has almost disappeared. I can think of a lot of things that would help – converting most of the downtown skyscrapers into permanent collective housing for people with inadequate living situations. Banning cars except for accessibility or emergency issues and  building a subway that goes everywhere instead of just to the suburbs. Running those criminals out of City Hall and turning it into a collective sex space. I could go on and on. It’s important to dream. Sometimes dreaming is our only weapon.

Rumpus: Anything else you’d like people to know?

Sycamore: Feel free to check in on me via my blog, or my homepage.


Sona Avakian lives in San Francisco and has never stolen another book. More from this author →