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The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

By

“These are the days of my romance.” – Kathy Acker, Don Quixote

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The End of San Francisco, new out from City Lights, is Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s first memoir and a whirring, thoughtful—but not nostalgic—elegy for San Francisco as queer haven. The book is invested in trying to understand, in trying to process both joyful and traumatic experiences even before laying them out in linear time.

Mattilda’s written two other books so far, the novels Pulling Taffy and So Many Ways To Sleep Badly, and edited five nonfiction anthologies, including the excellent Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?, whose cover I love so much: a pink lace circle and two urinals, one dripping with glitter necklaces. She is also a widely published critic, and a columnist and Reviews Editor at Make/shift.

The End of San Francisco pivot-orbits from Mattilda’s father’s deathbed to when she left Brown, to her organizing in ACT UP, Fed Up Queers, and with Gay Shame, through friendships and letdowns, to Riot Grrrl and the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. The book weaves and glitters, it holds the hopes and threats of Clairice Lispector’s The Passion of G.H. and also David Wojnarowicz’s blood-filled egg—one of his images for rage—while at the same time creating its own brave, tender, kinetic world.

Mattilda lives in Seattle now, and that’s where we chatted, in pearly light at her kitchen table, before walking across the muddy park to Elliott Bay Books.

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The Rumpus: When we first started talking about this book, years ago, you felt it was a really important piece to write—an important story for you to tell. Did you know what it was going to be about specifically? San Francisco, people, a certain period of your life?

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: San Francisco has been the most formative place in my life. It’s where I learned and developed and practiced and implemented my politics, and my desire and my social awareness and my community building, and it’s the place that, in a way, gave me everything. But in a way it also let me down more than anything. It’s always been both those places at once for me.

The End of San Francisco starts in a very different place—visiting my father in D.C. before he dies of cancer—and then it goes into Seattle and into New York and Boston, and it’s constantly in all these different places at once, too. But San Francisco is always there, in the literal micro way and in the macro way, as this thing that kind of looms over it, as it has loomed over me: San Francisco as a place where marginalized queers can come to find a way to cope, and is this possible anymore? Was it ever possible?

Rumpus: How did you know where to start a story like that?

EndofSF_fullcover_03Sycamore: This manuscript started with the writing I did when I went to visit my father before he died, in 2006. The writing I did then, it was right in the moment, so in a way it’s the most linear, the most direct, in a certain sense. Because I was feeling it that way.

So for me, the book is structured by feeling, rather than conventional narrative structure. It started in this place of being able to be completely vulnerable, in a way that nobody else in my family was able to be. It started with being able to visit my father—I hadn’t seen him in eleven years, since confronting him about sexually abusing me as a kid, when I told him I would never see him again unless he could acknowledge that. But I changed that decision because I knew he was dying, and I didn’t want to think, Oh I wish I’d visited him, because then he’d be dead.

So going there was this really traumatic experience, but also I felt like, Oh, I’m somewhere else. I’m not part of that anymore. And I think it was that emotion that opened up the rest of the ideas.

And so I think that’s where the idea of it being the end of San Francisco came in. I wrote it all still living in San Francisco.

Rumpus: Which is really intense!

Sycamore: Yeah. And about the question of fiction versus nonfiction—I’m calling this book nonfiction.

Rumpus: Which is the first time you’ve done that, right?

Sycamore: Totally. And so that’s been really interesting. For me, the difference is not whether or not the things actually happened to me—because in Pulling Taffy and So Many Ways To Sleep Badly, which are novels, almost all of the things in there actually happened to me. And so in those books I actually edited out a lot of overt politics that I obsess over, because I felt that got in the way of the book. All my books are very voice-driven, so I edit things out that get in the way of the voice.

But in this book in particular I am obsessing about these sort of formative moments for myself—politically, socially, culturally, emotionally, sexually, intimately—and I am circling around these things, and in such an obsessive way that to me, that’s what makes it nonfiction.

And I think, too, also because I really wanted to talk about how San Francisco has impacted me. How childhood trauma has impacted me. How searching for radical queer community has impacted me. And it felt more personal to call it nonfiction, which I don’t think is always the case. The problem, I think, with most books that are memoir is that they follow this conventional arc, which takes away from the power of actually experiencing what the person is talking about. When I’m dead and in the ground, if you want to fly over in a helicopter and say, “Here’s Point A to Z,” that makes sense. But until then, everything goes in all directions.

Rumpus: There would be lots of different ways to map out this story then, I’d guess. Did you decide to write about people and spaces, or was this ever a history of political action?

Sycamore: No, I’m not trying to do a history of ACT UP or Gay Shame. This is more like an emotional history for myself. I’m trying to find a map for this place where now I feel lost.

I know that’s one of the big questions I ask in my life right now—radical queer politicking and community building have been so central to my life, but it definitely hasn’t gotten to the point where I feel like I have a queer community that I can depend on. And if it hasn’t gotten that way for me, and I’ve been so central to so many of these worlds, then I know it’s not working. So it’s not working. And so what does it mean, that it’s not working? And how could something like that work? Because I still believe in the same sort of ideals.

Rumpus: How do you think youth figures into it?

Sycamore: It’s tricky. I know that when I was nineteen, the worst thing anyone could ever have said to me is, “Oh, that’s because you’re young.”

Rumpus: Totally.

Sycamore: I would have been appalled. And I still hold true to the ideals of that time, so I never want to say that something is just because of youth. And at the same time, I want to hold people accountable for the actions they’re doing, even if they are nineteen. I felt that way when I was nineteen.

Rumpus: So how did you access the memories? Were you keeping journals all this time?

Sycamore: It’s interesting because I’ve not kept journals all of this time. I mean, the way I wrote this book, I actually, the original—I won’t call it “manuscript,” but the material—I basically printed everything out that I’d written for several years, and it was twelve hundred pages. I was shocked, because I didn’t used to be that kind of writer, where I would have twelve hundred pages of anything. I think a lot of it came from the practice of blogging, the regular practice of putting something out there, whatever the hell it is.

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So then I took those twelve hundred pages and separated it thematically. The one part that’s very similar to when I first wrote it, is the part about confronting my father before he died. I had a lot of great stories, but I had to look at it and ask myself, Well what are the things that are going to tell the story without telling it? Also, the middle big sprawling chapters, the circling feeling, that energy of circling around and searching: that’s the core that I really wanted to maintain.

Rumpus: So you thought purposefully about circles?

Sycamore: Well, in the initial writing, it was just there, because I literally did not know what I was doing. I was like, Why am I writing about Le Tigre? Riot Grrrl? I thought I was writing about San Francisco!

You know, I had a sense, but I wanted to keep that sort of “What the hell is going on?” Definitely there were people who wanted to edit that out. They were like, “I don’t even know what’s going on here! Is this 1992, or 1999?” and I was like, “That’s okay.” I’m okay with it. I mean, there are different kinds of edits. There was at least one person who really wanted the book to follow the arc of moving to San Francisco, and finally finding everything I needed, and then watching it fall apart. And I was like, “Oh, but you know what? Actually, that never happened. Because it was always everything at once.” And that’s what this book is about.

Rumpus: I don’t think there’s another memoir—well, how are you marketing this, as a memoir?

Sycamore: Yes, this one is called a memoir. A memoir against memoir.

Rumpus: This arc feels so much truer to experience. This way, people—the people you’re writing about—they get to mature too, even apart from how a traditionally cohesive text would “need” them to. And then different things come to the top.

You don’t have that many pop culture references here, so I like how that Clash lyric (“We met / when we were at school / never took no shit from no one”), how that comes to the top. I like how Polk Street comes to the top. At first I wanted a more standard arc too, but now I agree: this feels like a truer way to write about these spaces.

Sycamore: The idea of making it fit into a narrative that is not the narrative I’m telling, to me that is not a particularly useful edit. For me as an editor, I want to make the work as strong as possible on the terms that it’s engaging with. The more helpful edits were when someone would say, for example, “Well, why are you vegan?” And for me, that’s just obvious. It’s a politic based on not wanting to participate in animal cruelty.

Rumpus: Which was great, because then you talked about not wanting to chew gum in a public space, how that felt—and on top of that, not wanting to refuse the friendship when someone did offer you gum. All the politics of that small moment, it felt much truer than a laundry list about the many ways people are cruel to animals.

Sycamore: Because it actually hadn’t entered my mind, why someone would wonder why nineteen-year-old me was vegan. But then I realized it might be useful, just to say briefly that it wasn’t a dietary fad based on watching a Madonna video, it was the idea of not wanting to participate in any form of animal cruelty. So that was helpful.

I think there are different kinds of being lost in writing. If you’re lost because you don’t want to read it on the terms of the writing, that doesn’t matter to me. For example, with So Many Ways To Sleep Badly, which is my second novel, the first review, which was from Publishers Weekly, said something like “the narrator, who may or may not be genetically female,” and I was like, What does that have to do with anything? And of course they’re not talking about the narrator, they’re talking about me.

Rumpus: Ugh, that’s terrible.

so many ways to sleep badly

Sycamore: That’s a refusal to enter the book. So Many Ways To Sleep Badly actually starts in a cruising park, sucking someone’s cock, so there’s not actually any confusion about whether the narrator is “genetically female.” That means someone feels threatened, or wants the book to be something else.

Conventional reviewers, I think they get dismayed by something that challenges their expectations—not so much in how something happens, but in how a story is structured. So many conventional reviewers don’t want to read that way.

Another person who critiqued the manuscript, she thought the first chapter was incredible, and then she got to the second and said it was a mess. But that’s the point. I left this place of clarity, and then I went into my life.

And the second chapter which, you know, is about dancing and not being able to dance in the same way anymore because of chronic pain, actually the writing in that chapter I find completely beautiful. So that was another example of a person who didn’t want to read it in a certain way.

Rumpus: As someone who’s written and read plenty music journalism, I really loved that section of the book, too. Another book would say, “This is where this line was from,” or “This is the instrument, or the song,” but you are talking about how the music makes your body move in a particular space. I thought that fit this book so well.

Sycamore: I love that description—thank you. In a way, each chapter is its own world, and then they collide against each other rather than blending. In the middle, there is more of an arc, but for the beginnings and endings you’re definitely like, “Oh, here I am somewhere else.” And so for me, the question that’s really important is, “Well, what happened in between?” That, for me, is where the question is.

Rumpus: It feels very true to how someone reflects back on her life. For example, you don’t show yourself actually leaving Brown, or officially leaving home, or ever even getting on a plane or bus or anything, to go anywhere.

Sycamore: Well, I write against closure. Even if the book is kind of a search for closure. I think those kinds of moments, it’s more—the thing that feels more important to me is what happens after. Well, either the trapped feeling, which is kind of the way the book ends, in a way, in the place I call “between childhood and the world.” I feel trapped by my parents, trapped by growing up in D.C., trapped by the conformity of everyone around me, trapped by structural homophobia, trapped by a lack of creativity and imagination, trapped by the limitations of my own dreams. But at the same time, there are these glimmers.

And of course, I’ve lived my life after this book and so I did get away, but at the same time I wanted to preserve this feeling of being trapped. Even though I’m talking about when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, in some ways it’s similar to being thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven.

I tend to write without the shape in mind at first, and then the shape comes. And then, I’m very meticulous about editing. Even when someone is all, “What the hell is this?” it’s still been edited fifteen times. Especially with this book.

Rumpus: You write a lot about being hurt, too, for example, the time when you’re pepper-sprayed at a march. There are many places here where the story could just’ve stopped, so does choosing to circle it back up instead mean you’re being hopeful? (That word feels too cute, and this book isn’t cute, but still.)

march-on-washington-1993-pinSycamore: Right, so I went back to D.C. when I was twenty, for the March on Washington. It was in 1993, the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Rights is what it was called. It was the biggest march of its kind, and it was really this spectacle of assimilation rallying around gays in the military. But at the same time, the important thing about it, for me, is those of us who saw ourselves as freaks and outsiders really found each other. We’d just be standing on street corners all like, “Hi!”

Rumpus: Right. “You came too!”

Sycamore: And one of the people I met eventually became my first boyfriend. And we were making out in Georgetown, and then some people who seemed like college students came up, and they were like, “What the fuck are you doing?” And I was like, “Kissing.” And they sprayed pepper spray directly into my eyes.

Rumpus: Jesus.

Sycamore: That time period, it predates when pepper spray was used by cops in political demonstrations, and so I went to the hospital and they didn’t even know what it was. Pepper spray was something you gave to your kids if there was a mugger, and instead they were using it like, “Let’s bash some fags.” I do think the mechanism of surviving violence…it is a certain kind of hope, to survive violence.

Rumpus: Do you think that’s the right word, though?

Sycamore: Well, I don’t think it’s the wrong word. We can never say that it’s hopeful to be bashed. But I think that to survive, and to be present in the horror and emotion and the trauma, and then get to the other side in a certain way—or, maybe not to get to the other side sometimes, because for example I think childhood trauma is always there, even when it’s not there.

But for me, I think there was a certain point in my life when I was nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, when in a certain way, also getting bashed right after the March on Washington, like in a certain way it proved my politics. It was like, “Well, I knew this didn’t do anything, and I knew this march was pointless and reactionary, and I knew that nothing changed.” The day after, the only difference was there was more trash in the streets and then I get bashed, literally outside of this twenty-four-hour restaurant where I used to go as a teenager, in high school after class.

But it was an interesting moment, because as a teenager I would never have imagined I could ever make out with someone, let alone with another fag in public. So that’s a kind of survival that leads to a certain kind of knowledge, and builds. That’s definitely very central to how I see the world.

Rumpus: Right. And the book could have stopped right there.

Sycamore: Right. For me, that is the way the book works. Something traumatic happens, something wonderful happens, something frightening or amusing or intimate or distancing, and it’s all together. That’s how life works, at least for me. There’s a lot of trauma. You have to keep going. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s not so good. But I’m glad it worked in terms of the structure of the book.

Rumpus: Do you feel like writing this book helped you think more clearly about the trauma in it?

Sycamore: Yes. I think especially in the Gay Shame chapter, the one called “What We Were Creating.”

Rumpus: The tense killed me.

Sycamore: Right. Because what I’m doing in that chapter is talking about this activist group that formed in San Francisco—Gay Shame started in New York in 1998, and then in San Francisco in 2001 after a conversation between a new friend of mine and I, and then the two of us sort of drove it. But we never wanted it to be that way. We didn’t want that leadership, we wanted it to be a collective process. And it was, but also it wasn’t.

I would not have been able to write about that contradiction at the time. But looking back, and thinking how did the thing I thought I was creating—these relationships through activism, intimacy through critical and political engagement, trust through action—this thing I thought was embodying all of my values and dreams, how did it let me down on every level? Part of answering that is looking back.

Gay Pride Rainbow Flag Flying in the Wind Over the Castro, San Francisco, California. Image shot 2007. Exact date unknown.

So I was talking to my friend Socket, and she was telling me her perspective, and some of that actually was so useful; it challenged me and furthered my own understanding. She said things like, “It was a social enclave that you created,” which was true, but I wouldn’t have thought of it that way. She was talking about the cult of personality. Her example was Huey Newton. How people are drawn to a personality—my personality, in this case.

Those were interesting questions for me. If someone had asked them then, I would’ve said, “Oh fuck off.” I knew there were all these flaws, but I still felt like we were building something through these actions. Looking back, I see the places we were maybe already failing, even in our creation.

Rumpus: Does that make you want to try it again?

Sycamore: Not in that way. Because of my chronic health issues, I don’t have the energy to be the driving force for creating something like that on my own. Looking back at Gay Shame, I saw: Okay, there were two of us. Everything we did was always by consensus with everyone in the group, but looking back it still would have fallen apart if there weren’t two of us. After the first several big actions, over the course of a year-and-a-half or two years, it would just’ve been over.

So how do you create something like that? I don’t know, because I’ve never seen it work. I would love to just go to something that already exists, because I have a lot of knowledge, but I don’t want to be the driving force. I also don’t want to be involved in something that I already see as completely fucked-up. I can offer myself, but if people aren’t interested in the same kind of process, then it doesn’t really matter. So now, I’m in an interesting place. I don’t really know. How do I find the things that give me hope, and also feel sustaining and not draining? That’s a big question.

Rumpus: So for you, when this book does end, where are we? Because there is a lot of “oh, and this doesn’t work, and this person isn’t here anymore,” but again, and even though hope isn’t the one right word, I don’t think you’re saying we should never go out into the world. So do you feel like you wrote this book to move on, or do you feel like you wrote it as a guide for the next person who stirs it up, or…?

Sycamore: I don’t feel like it’s an outcome-oriented book. I think, say, for example, my anthologies do have a very specific political intervention. Why Are Faggots Afraid of Faggots?, I wanted it to ask this very specific question: how did we get to this place where gay culture—gay sexual social culture—is about pec implants and Pottery Barn, instead of sexual splendor and liberation? About disposable consumer culture, not challenge and merrymaking?

Rumpus: Right. You’re such a pro at messaging, so when I finished this book I was struck that there was no specific message at the end.

Sycamore: Right. I feel like whatever purpose someone can take from it—and sure, so if it’s helpful for someone who is nineteen and searching for other freaks and outsiders and queers and whores and drug addicts and anarchists, the same kinds of things I was, then great. But I don’t want to write that kind of book.

Rumpus: I loved that. This is not a how-to. You’re not just trying to get a new batch of kids to listen to The Clash.

Sycamore: For me, it’s about examining the places, the people, in moments of loss and connection and dreaming and yearning and spurning and, everything that has made me and unmade me. If that can be useful to someone else, great. But that’s not why I wrote it. For me, it’s a challenge for myself, to think about what do our dreams mean, especially if they so often end up in failure?

2013-04-30 03.12.38And I don’t mean failure like “oh, we didn’t win.” That’s fine. I don’t think winning needs to be the answer. But failure in the sense of betraying one another. And like I think I said earlier, I feel like as someone who’s been very central in radical queer worlds, if those worlds can’t support me I know they’re not supporting other people. So I do want it to be a challenge in that sense.

Also, I want this book to be a challenge to myth-making. I feel that people believe in these mythologies even when you’re not telling them. To some people, I stand for something that I don’t believe in anymore. I still believe in the same dreams, but I don’t believe in the cultures that actually exist. And so in that sense, it is a challenge to actually live up to our visions of accountability.

Rumpus: You have a line about what it might be to create a culture where masculinity was chosen, negotiated, and transformed—what that would look like, and what it would mean to have that as the goal. The structure of this book dovetails with that, for me.

Sycamore: Part of that is the vulnerability.

Rumpus: But you didn’t write a funeral.

Sycamore: I read a lot of memoirs, and I think they contain a lot of amazing information—the kinds of gossip that is a part of history that isn’t anywhere else—but to me the predictable linear form plotting towards packaged revelation or false narrative closure really limits the possibilities. So I’m trying to write a different form that is also memoir. Not memoir in the sense of a how-to, or a guidebook, or a history with defined beginning and ending: memoir in the sense of a book driven by personal vulnerability towards feeling.


Mairead Case is a writer, editor, and teacher. An MFA-W candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and graduate of the 2013 Summer Writing Program at Naropa, Mairead works in Youth Services at the Poetry Foundation Library and as a project editor for featherproof books, Yeti Publishing, Curbside Splendor, and elsewhere. More from this author →