DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #73: I’m Standing Right Next To You

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In this very special Rumpus interview, Lidia Yuknavitch interviews our beloved Sugar:

Dearest sweet peas,

I was intrigued when I read in The Rumpus Book Club discussion with Lidia Yuknavitch that some club members thought Lidia was me. Like many of you, I read and loved her amazing book, The Chronology of Water, as well as the great essays that she’s written for The Rumpus (like this one and this one and this one). I was also struck by the similarities in our lives. The two of us got to talking online and we decided that it would be a kick if she interviewed me for a column. What follows is our conversation.

I’ll be back next week with more answers to your glimmering questions, sweet peas.

Yours,
Sugar

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Lidia Yuknavitch: Sugar, when I read your columns I go inside out. You have a way of reaching down my body and gently pulling everything hidden, or scared, or shamed, or desired, out into the world where I can look at it without—you know—passing out. I think I’d call that what a Shaman does, but the second I say “Shaman” it can be misunderstood as ju ju-Y…still, it sort of fits to me because you have access to the parts of our lives and emotions and worlds that are dark or difficult, you are willing to travel to them like they are different worlds, you almost enter a trance state it seems like (or I do when I’m reading them), and you practice something kinda like divination or healing. Other times I feel like I’ve just naked mud wrestled with you, or had intense word sex, or word chocolate, or an exquisite pile of word bacon (my favorite). So, you know, Sugar, are you a sexy secular She-Shaman?

Sugar: Thank you. I’m blushing down to my toes. I wish there were more words to use than thank you to express the gratitude/surprise/humility I feel in response to what you just said, as well as for the kindness I’ve received from other readers, but there isn’t, so I’ll just stop talking now before I faint or puke or run out the door screaming, okay?

Yuknavitch: How do you describe what you do to us?

Sugar: I’m constantly having an internal conversation with myself about this very question—about what the Sugar column is and what it means, about how I might describe it to others, as well as to myself. I think and say opposing things about it. It’s self-help and it’s also anti-self help. It’s tough and it’s sweet. I ponder many of the questions for weeks and then I dash off my three-thousand-word answer in a single night. I’m a secret and yet in the columns I deeply reveal myself. I’m at core an orderly person. I like things to be defined and mapped out, but what I’ve learned is that art doesn’t work that way. Neither does desire or love or parenting or travel. And, it turns out, the same goes for an unorthodox advice column.

So I trust that. I write myself out onto a late night limb scrambling for some truth, and in that scramble I think readers recognize themselves. I open myself up to the dark, the intuitive, the mysterious, not knowing what I’ll find.

That might strike some as counter-intuitive, since advice columnists are meant to position themselves as The Ones Who Know but I’m not that person; Dear Sugar isn’t that column. Being The One Who Doesn’t Know But Who Will Work Like A Motherfucker To See What She Can Find makes more sense to me. It’s more honest.

Yuknavitch: Before we get to the inner workings of all things Sugar, I have a burning me up question: what’s the hottest sex you ever had?

Sugar: Whenever anyone uses the word hot—including myself—I start internally deconstructing what hot means. It’s so often used to reference the most cliche, conventional, unhot things. It’s the catchword for the Porno-Hetero-Normative-Hollywood-Beauty-Industrial-Complex that attempts to rule our lives. I’ve had sex that conforms to that. It has often been hot. I’ve been under the table, down on my knees, riding on top, in the shower, under a canopy of trees.

But all that sex blurs together.

There are two times that stand out to me as truly hot.

One is the first time I had sex with a woman. We were in a cheap motel room kissing in front of a big mirror. We’d checked into the motel so we could finally—after much messing around—have full-on, real deal sex. There was one point when we stopped kissing and we both turned and looked at ourselves in the mirror. We were naked from the waist up, our arms wrapped around each other, our pelvises pressed together, both of us so wet inside our jeans. That was such a stunning moment in my life. That image of the two of us there like that is imprinted on my cells. It was so amazingly, blazingly hot. And I think it was hot because it was the moment when I realized I could do anything I wanted to do with my body. That I could transgress the codes and not only be free, but be freer. I could fuck a woman if I wanted to and I did.

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Another time was after I’d had my first baby. It had been months since Mr. Sugar and I’d had sex. I’d given unmedicated, natural birth to a very large baby and in the course of it I’d been ripped from stem to stern, so to speak. Though I eventually healed, I felt like my vagina and vulva had become a no-touch zone, like a wound rather than a sex organ, and not just for the present moment, but maybe forever. Plus, I was exhausted and nursing around the clock and not at all yearning for physical touch because physical touch was my entire existence, and I was fatter than I’ve ever been, so I felt utterly unsexy, like a lot of women do in the months after giving birth: that the sexual part of me was dead, or at least deeply dormant. I didn’t know I’d ever feel real sexual desire again, but in an intellectual way I knew I wanted to have a sex life, and I knew I loved Mr. Sugar, so we decided to go at it one day when our baby was napping. We took it really slow and we laughed at how awkward and utilitarian it was and I cried afterwards, from relief and sorrow.

And it was really hot. Because it was anti-hot.

It was a god honest experience, in a different but similar way that sleeping with that first woman was. It was another sort of transformation in my life—me realizing again that I could do anything I wanted to do with my body. I could be a mother and be strong and physical in this incredibly powerful way that was rooted in sex but not sexual. And I could be celibate. And I could learn how to fuck again with my formerly injured-vag. And I could do it really hot or I could do it really ordinary. And that was the hottest thing ever because it was real.

Do you understand that? What do you think? What’s your hot sex?

Yuknavitch: I’m so relieved you began by interrogating what we mean when we say “hot.” Secretly I was hoping you would. The fact remains that the culturally sanctioned meaning of that word is still bound and tethered (and not in the good way) to a male fantasy code that relegates women to objects of a sillier and sillier story. It’s not surprising that the primary male fantasy scenarios are dominated by women having sex ass up, threesomes made from two women quenching the desire of one man, light bondage and thinly veiled rape threat scripts. Essentially, the neverending redundancy of market driven male fantasy inspired porn.

I like porn. Porn is fine. But I often have to fight off the urge not to laugh or guffaw, which can, you know, be quite the boner or yoni buzz kill.

What’s yucky though is just how many women think that these are their fantasies too, and that they are “hot,” and that if you are a woman and you are not into these male figured fantasies, something’s wrong with you. I talk to a lot of women who seem stuck inside the “story” of hot instead of exploring what “hot” might mean to them in their own terms, in their own bodies. I bet you do too.

To be honest I can’t believe it’s 2011 and we’re often still stuck in this absurd way of talking about hotness. Slap my ass! I mean really?

So when I asked you, Sugar, I kinda hoped you move to the terms available to us (women) inside our own, real, subjective, bodies.

That you talked about your first experience with a woman and the power you both felt at owning and desiring, it reminded me of an idea I’ve had for a while now — I discovered my own sexuality with other girls. I wish girls could experiment with other girls in safe situations and have it be the most normal thing in the world. Because the freedom inside girls being with other girls — the sense of wonder and exploration — BEFORE the weight of the heterosexual chase and capture and breed narrative kicks in — is quite profound.

Maybe I even wish there was an adolescent girls sex camp kids could attend before middle school. So that by the time girls got to middle school, they’d have some sense of owning their own bodies and desires. So I love the story you told of your early sexual experiences with a woman. Hot. Yes.

That you talked about a kind of healing having sex after the birth of a child is so magnificently stunning to me — and so not talked about in general — as if once we bear children our sexuality sutures shut or travels to some odd land called motherhood, never to be hot again…and yet your description of the very wound that life came through being a place where sexuality pulses and surges…well, it makes the word “hot” look PUNY.

Yes. I understand. That you learned to fuck again with your formerly injured vag. In fact I understand that so deeply I want to drive to your house right this second and share vag truths with you. Give me your address.

The hottest sex I’ve ever had is inside language. I don’t mean writing sex scenes, though I can pretty much make a puddle in my chair whenever I write sex scenes. I mean the way that desire pervades all language in my experience — I mean that there is an erotics to language and narrative and poetry that is as hot as bodies are to me.  In my book I explore that — the way desire pervades language and experience — the way bodies are in every sentence. People don’t believe me when I say that language can be that — not separate from a body, but in relation to a body erotically…but it’s ok. I still know it’s true. It’s true in Leaves of Grass and in Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein and Cixous and Duras and Acker and Faulkner and a million others.

But you (cleverly) also asked me to speak from my body and not my head. Sly one, you are. So even though I don’t buy the mind / body split, I mean at all, I will tell one body story here.

There are sexual spiritual “heights” I have reached with the Mingo that surpass most of the sex I’ve had in my life.

But that’s not the story I’m going to tell.

And I’ve had way unusual sex with ordinary and extraordinary folks. Men folks and women folks and in between or other folks.  But that’s not the story I’m going to tell either.

The hottest sex I’ve ever had was not with anyone. Or it was with myself. Or it was with water. What I mean is, I was in a hot spring by myself. I was twelve. I was at some kind of summer camp. There must have been counselors or other pubescents nearby, maybe they were roasting marshmallows or singing kum-ba-ya or something nearby, but in my memory at least, I was alone in water. The water was heat and stillness like it is in natural hot springs. The night sky wore her black hair nestled with stars. I put my fingers between my legs and played with everything about myself, the inside cave of myself and the outside skin and lips and folds of flesh. I opened my eyes I closed my eyes I laughed my throat got tight. It was the first time I’d discovered my actual clit — the beautiful small roundness of her rising and waiting. I’d already masturbated in my life, but it involved a lot of rubbing against things or rubbing things against myself in sort of not very gentle ways. A lot of panting and grunting and teeth clenching. In this warm water I found the site of sexual pleasure on my own. And it was just. Mine.

I peed when I came. Everything water.

All thought blasted into the night sky.

I’ve never shivered and convulsed as hard in my life.

And that’s saying something.

Sugar: Jesus, Lidia. You make me swoon. Your writing. Your life. Your spirit and heart.

Yuknavitch: Perhaps we should explore this swooning business together. Femina a femina…

Sugar: Your book rocked me deeply in so many ways, but I think the most profound way was how bold you were when it came to writing about your body. It was so particular, so intimate, it became the universal narrative to me. You told me things I knew, but didn’t even know I knew. I found myself saying yes a lot and also holy shit.

So back to these “hot sex” narratives of ours that are really the anti-hot? I think that’s pretty important that those are the stories we came up with. I mean, in a socially significant way. I’d give so much for the truth of that to be genuinely absorbed by the culture and if that’s asking too much, well then at least by women.

I have a whole stockpile of letters I haven’t answered from women who hate their bodies. They think they’re too fat or their boobs are too small or saggy. Some of them binge and purge. Some of them starve. Some of them self-destructively overeat. Some of them won’t sleep with people because they feel badly about how they look naked. Others will only sleep with people who reinforce their body hate.

I haven’t addressed this subject in my column because about it I feel only despair. It’s one area in which I don’t believe I can affect change. I could say that looks are artificial and fleeting; that it’s more important to be good than thin; that a sense of humor is so much more interesting than a nice pair of tits, but these are not messages that are generally received on any real level.

Yuknavitch: DON’T GET ME STARTED. I love bodies SO SO SO much. All of them. All sizes and shapes and forms and transforms and differences. I think bodies are about the coolest thing there is — sculpture will never catch up to the beauty of bodies. ALL bodies. I’m truly fascinated by every body I’ve ever seen. Although the least fascinating bodies to me personally are the ones that look like the so-called desired ideal…

So as a teacher for example I face waves and waves of sadness coming at me and through me from rooms and rooms of students who are sitting there hating one thing or another about their bodies. It’s a great sorrow to me. One of the MANY revolutions we need in this country and everywhere is a CORPOREAL revolution — a radical revisioning of bodily existence with a new value system and a new aesthetic that prioritizes being and knowing rather than appearance and trite fadism. Tantamount to sadism. Why are we continually torturing the one thing we’ve got in life that carries us through the glory of a life? My list of how we got this way is quite long and involves righteous ranting. Religion. Gender codes. Social organization. Consumer culture. The cult of proper citizenship and mating. Somebody get me a soapbox.

Speaking of women creatures, do you think the consumers of the Dear Sugar column are mostly women? Is there a gender bias? Not in terms of the letters you choose, but the consumers/responders? Does that matter?

Sugar: Is it your perception that more women read the column than men?

Yuknavitch: I suppose it has been my perception, though it’s true enough that I not only know men who read your column (some religiously), but I can see them in some of the responses…

Sugar: From my end it seems at least sort of gender balanced. Women probably outnumber the men, but not overwhelmingly. I see it in the comments section, on my Facebook page and Twitter, as well as in the emails I get privately each week from readers. I hear from men a lot and they write to me with an emotional vulnerability and kindness that pretty much blows my mind.

What do you make of the gendered-ness of both the column and the audience?

Yuknavitch: Well there is a big fat cultural set of gender biases in the macro sense embedded in my question; that is, more women apparently read, and more men are apparently published and win the fattie prizes and so forth. Which begs the question of course, um, ladies, what are we most buying and reading? Ha. But to your point, I think women are more likely to have open emotional discussions than men are if we are speaking generally. For hideous and ridiculous reasons, men are cultural trained to NOT speak openly about emotions, or sometimes, to even HAVE emotions. And women have helped one another bear their lives both secretly and publicly by sharing emotional dialogue. So it could be that I’m just bringing that lens to the table and imposing it on the Sugar column. I mean Jesus, I’ve read some pretty intense emotions from your Sugar column menzs…

But I will say that I love the male participation that I see going on in the columns, the letters written, the feedback. I love how Stephen Elliott loves Sugar and says so often, sometimes rising to Sugar’s defense (though Sugar doesn’t need it). And I love how there is a quite self conscious “space” opened up for any man to participate in honest emotional intensity. Perhaps that is a place of the feminine/masculine in all of us that you help to open up.

But I mean, if we corralled ten of the men each of us knows in a room and made them read and respond to Sugar columns, I wonder what the conversation would be like? Particularly if they were random men, and not the ones we know and love so much? It interests me.

Sugar: It interests me too. Because I’m a woman, I tend to assume that women will be more interested in my work than men—not because my work is only of interest to women, but I’m braced for sexism because I’ve experienced it. When my first book came out I said, “But it’s not a “women’s novel!” an alarming number of times in an effort to legitimize it to male readers.

There was this little stretch of time after I first became Sugar when many people thought I was Stephen Elliott, but I think it’s become pretty apparent that the column’s sensibility is deeply female. Which is different from being girlie.

It means a lot to me that so many men have responded so passionately and authentically to the column, but I’m equally moved by the women who’ve expressed their support. I want what every writer wants: to be judged on her own merits and nothing more. If we picked ten men out of the blue and ten women and asked them to read my column, what would they say? I’d be curious to know. Are the men who read Dear Sugar a more highly evolved self-selected group who happen to be open to the opinionated ramblings of a lady advice columnist who calls them sweet peas or does the column transcend gender?

It’s notable to me that the two or three people who read the column each week before it goes live on the web site are all men: Mr. Sugar, Isaac Fitzgerald, and sometimes Stephen Elliott. They’re the front line for me, my touchstones, in terms of feedback and support. I go forth more bravely because I know they’ve got my back. Team Testosterone.

Yuknavitch: Why do you think the Sugar column has taken off so quickly and profoundly? I have theories about this…about what we are all walking around thinking and feeling right now…and about the history and role of the advice column…

Sugar: I think people are way more tender hearted than any of us want to admit to being. In the Sugar column, I don’t pretend otherwise. I say right out loud that love is the most important thing. It isn’t a new idea, but it’s an idea that often gets botched in art—it’s either overdone or underdone; too sentimental or too detached.

As a writer, I’m really interested in excavating all the layers of what it means to be human. And one layer is full of tears and memory and blood; of our most vulnerable, earnest longing. I knew that sincerity was going to be at the heart of my Sugar columns, but I was uncertain at the beginning if the people at The Rumpus would think I was too much of a sap. I didn’t know Stephen Elliott personally when I was invited to take over the column by the person I’ll call “Old Sugar.” I’d read some of Stephen’s work and I knew who he was, but we’d never met or even communicated online and I had this idea about him that he was this über-cool hipster dude. And the thing is, I was right, but only half right. It turns out, he’s an über-cool hipster dude who has a beautiful spirit and a tremendous heart, who—as Julie Greicius once told me—simply exudes love.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I said yes to the Sugar gig, I told Stephen that I wasn’t going to be as funny as the Old Sugar—who was really, really funny and good. I told him what I had to offer was emotional intensity. He said that sounded fine.

So in the column, I rolled out my sincerity slowly, with fear in my heart, and as I did, the love began pouring in. People responded in this heartfelt way that felt almost revolutionary.

What are your theories about it, Lidia? About “what we are all walking around thinking and feeling right now…and about the history and role of the advice column”?

Yuknavitch: One of my theories about why the new-wave advice column you’ve invented is so astonishingly resonant with people is that you bring a literary-ness to the historical “advice” genre. You don’t just give advice. You tell stories. You tell stories from your life and the people you know. And you go back into the person’s letters—into their very language—and pull out the story they are so achingly expressing just underneath the words. And I think like you say about our tender heartedness, we long with every muscle in our bodies to be part of a story larger than a self. That’s true I think of any age – cave man to now. We can more easily bear the weight of selves and lives if we share stories. It’s almost as if you are making a communal novel of our selfstories.

Sugar: Thank you for noticing that. Especially the part about how I pull the answer from the language of the letter writer. I often have an intuitive sense that the letter writer knows the answer, but can’t yet hold it. I believe truly that there are stories hidden in the language we use. It’s a powerful thing to witness.

As for the piece in which I narrate my own stories by way of giving advice, I think you’re right that it’s both “new-wave” and also “cave man.” I’ve always been drawn to the ancient forms of storytelling—the ones in which people sat around a fire or on the front porch, spinning yarns about the things that happened to them and the people they know. I take meaning and heart from that way of conveying information and history and morality. Story has taught me so much. Listening to the story of you and telling the story of me—it’s how I’ve made sense of my life, how I’ve tracked the line on the map. I try to do that for others in the column too.

Yuknavitch: Because I teach, particularly creative writing and women’s studies, where “personal stories” tend to abound, I happen to know that the stories you tell about your life are more LIKE us all than UNLIKE us all or unusual…what I mean is it’s become more the norm to come from a broken or abusive or odd home life, to feel that our identities are fragmented and baffling, to roam our own life experiences as if they were novel chapters since there is no longer any unifying clear THEME to follow in a high capitalist, speed centered, media saturated existence…when you tell YOUR story, do you feel connected to people, or apart from them?

Sugar: Both. I think you’re so right that whatever happens to us—even the hardest, darkest things—is so LIKE what happens to others, but it’s really easy to forget that. We all feel so alone and original. Telling the stories I do, I’m attempting to reach across that divide. I was talking to Isaac Fitzgerald recently and he told me about a trip he took back home and the way he described it, I could feel it in my own bones. I mean, I really could, in this deep and achy way. His experience—the boy returned home after ten years gone—is nearly universal. I knew precisely what he was talking about. And yet, of course, only he knows the story of his precious and particular life. Right? That’s the beauty of the puzzle. That’s the line between you and me and the rest of them. That thread is unbreakable and invisible.

Yuknavitch: What kinds of questions stop you in you life, Sugar? What letter would you write or what happens in your life that causes you to reach outward and ask for help or wonder?

Sugar: I can’t think of a specific question, but I can tell you that I generally yearn for a wise old person in my life. Wisdom isn’t entirely age-related, of course. There are a lot of old jackasses. But I wish there were someone really old and really wise who was willing to be honest with me about how to live and love and parent and forgive and say no or yes or hold on or let go. We are all so hungry for inside information and we get so very little of it.

About a year ago I was struggling with the notion of long-term monogamy. How does it actually work? I kept asking people. How do you have vibrant sex with only one person and only one person for decades upon decades? Most people would just shrug their shoulders and ask the same questions back to me. But one woman who’s in her late 50s and a good thirty years into her marriage said, “Well, you just have to hold on. In my mid-40s I wanted to fuck every man who wasn’t my husband. I didn’t, but I came very close, and then I got through it and we moved into another phase.”

I can’t tell you how helpful that was. I mean, just to hear someone who’d traveled further down the path give me a tiny bit of perspective—to essentially say that it would be okay and that struggle was part of it being okay—was enormous and important. I’m not a fan of the self-help genre because it’s usually so void of that voice. The one that doesn’t speak in platitudes, but rather realities.

Yuknavitch: You know I really think you have hit on something huge there—that we seek “wisdom” in a time when wisdom seems to have been shot to shit, dispersed across a great sea of stupidness…even as I’m pretty much FINE with the breakdown of godhead and the breakdown of the patriarchal nuclear family model and the breakdown of male authority in general and the breakdown of gender power codes, we’ve yet to recreate from the ashes where “wisdom” is. How do we find it. From whom. How do we touch it in ourselves.

Luckily there are alternative models to the mostly white mostly Christian mostly Western models we’ve inherited all over the world, so one can still turn, say, to an older woman or an older man, or a younger woman or man, or to a culture different from our own or to a person or community that incorporates wisdom as journey and exploration and discovery without conquering…but I think too we can always turn to art. Since my parents are dead and my grandparents are dead and I’m not that great at being social as a relatively fucked up loner blond, I often find myself making relationships with art like other people make relationships with god or elders.

I think that’s why what’s most meaningful to me about, say, the Sugar columns, is the art of it. What do you hope your advice “does?”

Sugar: I hope it moves people in a non-bullshit way to think deeply about their lives and their relationships and the narratives they’ve created about themselves and the people they love. I hope my other writing does the same thing, but the forms of fiction and memoir require me to go about it in a subtler way. The form of the advice column demands a direct address. People are asking me: What do you think I should do? What would you do? And I take that very seriously. It keeps me up at night. I mentioned earlier that I often write my columns the day before they are published, but I think about them well before that. I sit with the situation that’s been presented to me. I let it compost in my mind and my heart.

Sometimes I feel very strongly that a letter writer should do one thing or another, but most of the time I’m advising a deeper examination and a wider perspective. People often tell me that they find the column relevant to their lives even when the letter writer presents a situation that’s entirely foreign to them. I’m hoping that’s what my column does: transcends the particular in order to grapple with the humanity in each of us.

What about you? What do you hope your writing “does”?

Yuknavitch: What I hope my writing “does” has radically changed in the last few years. I mean like shedding a fucking skin radical. Up until a few years ago, the truth is, everything I wrote was from a deeply alienated position. When I thought about a “reader,” I thought pretty quickly after that, “Fuck you, reader. I don’t give a shit what you think about what I wrote ever. Take that you righteous hypocritical ass.”

Charming, huh.

But something happened in the last three years that literally obliterated the writer I was. Head, heart, body. And in the books I am writing now, of which The Chronology of Water is a prime example, to my astonishment, I imagined a reader with a tenderness and compassion I didn’t even know I had the ability to feel. I imagined making heart bridges to a reader—I imagined that even if this reader or that reader hated what I’d written, it was worth it to build the word bridge straight up to the flesh of their body. In case. In case, like me, they could admit that we want to love and be loved. In spite of it all. And that when we enter the room of “otherness” fully, mercifully, there are others with us.

So I guess I’m saying I hope my writing helps at least one reader feel less alone and more brave about leaning into whatever their own life figures for them.

Sugar: I hope for the same thing too—that my readers feel less alone when they read my column. With Sugar I’ve developed an anonymous persona, but it’s still very much me. I’m not a character. I’m standing right next to you. Sugar is a slightly amplified and also slightly distilled version of me—interesting choice of words, since one is to be made bigger, the other, reduced, but both things happen to me when I write this column.

Having said that, it’s like any other writing I do. I savor it. I dread it. I resist it. I get obsessed with it. I freak out about having either too much or nothing to say. I try things that don’t ultimately work. I crank out the words in a feverish and exalted state. I cry. I laugh. I feel sick to my stomach. I push really hard to deliver that giant baby. I rip myself from stem to stern. And every damn week I think: No way, I’m finished. I won’t ever be able to do it again.

Yuknavitch: And yet. Reproduction. Unending creation. I love the body of your words.

Sugar: Thank you.

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