Taking Back Control: A Conversation with Joseph Osmundson

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Joseph Osmundson—memoirist, scientist, and certified popper sommelier—is the author of the new memoir, Inside/Out, in which he chronicles yearning, desire, pleasure, and pain in a contemporary gay relationship.

He writes about the trauma of emotional abuse and, at times, of having been the abuser. Intimacy abounds throughout, and Osmundson strives, at all moments, to achieve intimacy with his reader while writing with great transparency about his intimate life. Utterly arresting, and with breathtakingly honest detail, his is a narrative we’ve long been waiting for; the author meditates on the messy complications of the type of relationship and break-up that continues to haunt long after it has dissolved.

Recently, we discussed intimacy, trauma, and the sometimes violence of desire.

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The Rumpus: You begin Inside/Out with the words “Growing up, I was always outside.” Being positioned on the outside looking in is perhaps the most cerebral of the many themes that run through this memoir. This idea permeates everything, from your description of the literal geography where you grew up to the troubling dynamics of the relationship that serves as the book’s main axis. Within this, you travel from a childhood in rural Washington to New York City gay life, to interracial desire, emotional abuse, and even the shitty corporeal realities of gay sex. In all of this, how did positioning yourself as an outsider emerge as the central theme?

Joseph Osmundson: One of the things that drove me to write this book was the idea that our childhood insecurities and traumas follow us much further in life than we want to admit. The scene of being picked on as a kid informs what I desired later in life. It feels pathetic to admit, but here it is: I’m thirty-five and still trying to fuck away my childhood bullying.

Desire is a complicated thing, certainly, but one thing that can drive it is a longing to be liked. I desire things in people that I want to have, but know that I never will. Ease and grace are high on that list, and this cannot be taken away from the fact that I grew up in a space where boys were supposed to be self-possessed. I never was. I was always neurotic, unsure, questioning, too painfully self-aware. That social outsiderness became a central component of my identity, and some parts of my desire became a request to overcome it, to fuck or date my way into grace. And of course, one never can. One can never be saved by anyone but oneself.

And okay, that’s fine, that’s an adult lesson to learn. But the relationship that becomes the center of this book showed me that those insecurities could drive really unhealthy relationship dynamics. We both desired things in each other that we wanted, but could not have, and sometimes couldn’t even face, and sometimes couldn’t even name, not even to ourselves. We wanted each other so badly, for maybe the right reasons, but almost always in the wrong ways.

Rumpus: One of my favorite aspects of this book is how it chops through time, destroying the idea of the linear narrative. It pulls us backward and forward, sometimes simultaneously. It plants us in such beautiful memories and then really, quite brutally, drags us kicking and screaming into the mess of it all. It manipulates us, plays with our emotions, much like an abuser would. Were you hoping, in some way, to treat your reader like Kaliq treated you?

Osmundson: One thing I love about writing is that sometimes people who read your work really well teach you about what the book is trying to do. Kiese [Laymon]’s blurb for the book did that for me, when he talked about how the book makes its own inside and out, and how that construction and inversion “obliterates spectacle.” That’s just what I was hoping to do, but I couldn’t put words to it.

After being in a relationship for two years with a man who needed not only to control his narrative, but also my own, writing was a freeing act. Kaliq would often say that I shouldn’t let my closest friends know what was really going on in our relationship, that I was “turning them against him.” Abuse operates and continues through silence. Healing, for me, meant taking back control and writing, publicly, about the very things that scared Kaliq, and me, both.

I never imagined feeling that way toward the reader, to be honest. But indeed, that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’m making a world in the book, and I’m in control of what you know and when you know it. I make you want more, and then pull back.

That’s exactly what an abusive partner does: They control the narrative. You’re the reader, the one who passively consumes. I wonder, then, if all writing, if all art, takes a somewhat abusive stance toward the reader. Of course we love the reader, we want them, we need them, but an abusive partner can indeed love, as well. An abusive partner needs nothing more than the one they’re abusing.

Rumpus: I’m curious about your experience with freedom while writing this book. At any point, did you feel that this project was freeing for you?

Osmundson: Yes, writing the book was absolutely freeing for me. I wrote it for myself, to break the patterns of the relationship, the abusive patterns that I engaged in, and, in a certain way, even asked for. I consented to the relationship. And in writing it down, in telling my truth(s), in letting myself be ugly, I grew up and I got free.

I don’t mean, though, freedom in what James Baldwin and David Foster Wallace both called the neoliberal, American sense of not having attachments to anything, to anyone. I mean I owned what I had done wrong and what had happened to me, I remembered it all, I remained tethered to it all, and here it is, and it does define me, and yet I can lay it down and then take a step away from it.

Without writing it down I wouldn’t have been able to take the very first step away, a movement that was necessary for me to get even-a-little-bit-free.

Rumpus: Your writing about sex strikes me as fearless, unabashedly unashamed, and irrevocably tied to intimacy in this narrative. It’s one of many ways in which you are intimate with your reader, and perhaps the primary way you wanted intimacy in this relationship. Why was it important for you to write sex in such a way? Do you think there’s extra significance in writing fearlessly about sex as a queer writer?

Osmundson: I work on my sex writing so much. I hate so much sex writing, it’s so easy to fall into cliché, to write only about desire and not the bodies that do the desiring. To not write about sex’s silences, the moments that drag or that embarrass.

I think so much about what my friend and teacher Kiese Laymon said in a workshop about writing sex, and writing more generally. He said he told students to take a bit of their body that embarrasses them—their sweat, their smell—and write that. Write that. Show the body, and not just the parts of the body that want to be shown.

Sex is so incredibly sexy, but also my god, the horror of it. The absolute horror. The way our bodies break down and break into another. And butt sex? I mean, is shit really ever not on your mind? We stay checking that dick for paint, worrying about a Jackson Pollock moment. I can’t count the number of sheets I’ve ruined, mostly not my own. There should be a line of gay Hallmark cards: “I’m sorry I shat on your 1200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets; I promise I thought I was going to be clean.”

And yes, showing queer bodies and what we do with them is both personal and political to me. Queer bodies were so sanitized in the quest for gay rights. We were made politically palatable. And that meant we weren’t supposed to be sexual in public. Well, human beings are often sexual, and I have no interest in cleaving that portion of myself off in order to be able to marry. That is not a decision I, personally, am willing to make. No one wants to marry me anyway, so fuck that noise.

So yes, writing queer sex is writing spectacle in that it’s placing in the public sphere something which is invisibilized. I learned from Ed White and James Baldwin. I learned from Garth Greenwell; I learned from the gay poets of the 1980s and 1990s, Melvin Dixon and Paul Monette and Doug Powell; I learned from everyone who came before me except Larry fucking Kramer.

Rumpus: I think there’s added significance to your book in a climate where queer bodies, bodies of color, and femininity are simultaneously invisible and hypervisible. We have an actively racist, homophobic, and misogynist administration which has increased visibility on both ends of the political spectrum. How do you see politics intersecting with your writing in general, in this book, and in the story that this book tells? Is that a lens through which you experienced this?

Osmundson: I’m like a Marxist (hopefully more in the Cedric-Robinson-pew than the Bernie-Bros-pew of that particular church), and I am that insufferable faggot who talks too much about Foucault and Judith Butler, so I know, as I write and as I read, that the political sphere is built by bodies and that bodies—and bodies of work—exist always in the political sphere.

My writing is very personal. I expose my own body, my own pleasures, the things I hate about myself, the things I love about myself, the way I love and touch others. As a faggot, that visibility is always political. It feels dangerous. I worry about losing my job. It feels more dangerous in the world of the bright orange butt-plug-in-chief. And yet, if we hide, then hope is truly lost. Lorde wrote that our silence won’t save us, and she is right. Our words and work, our bodies and their identities, might kill us, but being silent would make it as if we hadn’t even lived.

Rumpus: There are moments in this narrative when you write about the challenges you faced in this relationship because of your whiteness, and your lover’s blackness. This is tied up in the complication of your working-class background intersecting with his middle-class background. What are some of the ways the trauma associated with your identities shaped how the two of you moved toward and away from each other?

Osmundson: I believe that we carry around our trauma in our bodies in very much the way that Claudia Rankine writes about. The book opens with a scene that relates to my history being sort of bullied for being poor and nerdy and fem (although I wouldn’t have then identified as queer, which I think matters) in a small town that was almost exclusively poor and white.

My boyfriend had a lot of trauma that’s his and not mine to write about, and some of that definitely related to being queer and black. I’m totally team bell hooks in that I believe that love (including but not only romantic love) has the power to heal and transcend, but only if you’re ready to heal, if you actually want to transcend.

Our queerness was not the same, and it acted differently on our bodies. The idea that all gays have enough in common to love one another is old. How many of our straight friends have tried to set us up with the only other gay person they know? But here I was making that same mistake. I believed that because we loved one another, because we desired one another, we’d find a way to hack it. Maybe others could have. We could never sort it out, and we tried and tried and tried.

And I want to make it very clear, this book isn’t about listing the shitty things he did to me. I was shitty to him, deeply shitty. My actions traumatized him, and his did me, and we kept doing that for far too long because neither of us was able to walk away.

We fetishized the trauma, so in a way even though we loved one another—and I know we did—there was no way for us to be together and not do harm. The pain became a part of the pleasure, and like nipple clamps or the Catholic liturgies, that can become quite addictive. A part of the writing process of this book was trying to understand that, and then to shine a light on it so I could see it better, and then to try to put it on the page as truthfully as I could.

And I’m sure writing the book hurt him, too. I don’t want the book to hurt him. But, as I was trying to heal from the trauma he did to me, I knew I would have to reclaim the ability to tell my own story, to lay bare my own body and what I’d done to it. I’m still not quite sure what it means that what I had to do to heal hurt him—I imagine—so badly. I’m still not quite sure what it means that, even now, I don’t want to hurt him.

Rumpus: This book is incredibly spare and short. This is perhaps its trademark when it comes to craft—on the sentence level, in size—it’s literally told in glimpses of this relationship. Its ideas are hefty, its honesty, perhaps, at times, overwhelming. Can you tell me how it took its shape? Was this contrast intentional?

Osmundson: Yes, absolutely. This book is unlike a lot of my other writing, where sentences themselves can sort of expand and expand to allow complexity or contrasting ideas within the same frame. I couldn’t do that here. When I started writing, I realized that I could only write around the things, the fucked up shit, the emotional abuse, if we can call it that.

I couldn’t face it head on, but I had to write sentences that did. I had to let the book build itself the way relationships do: moment by moment. I had to show it, piece by piece, in small scenes, and short bursts. If I didn’t let them sit simply on the page, if I tried to write in more complicated sentences and paragraphs, the entire thing fell apart into a sort of abstract nothingness. I wanted to say what I wanted to say, and so for once I had to restrain my impulse for excess.

I had to let the silences sit. Some of the chapters are a few words long, and then white space sits on the page. That white space says as much about the relationship as any words could. And when I read the work aloud, the short sections clip and accelerate the whole. It took a lot of play, of trial, of editing, of cutting, of moving away from everything I always do to control my own work, to feel comfortable in it.

I feel deeply naked in this book, but that’s the only way it could have worked. I couldn’t hide. I had to expose my own self and how I had participated in everything, in a way consented to everything. There were originally pictures in the book, including naked pictures of myself. I felt the need to show it all, under my own control. The craft became about exposing, going after the one thing I needed to say, and then, like in the relationship, and then walking away.

Rumpus: This book is already in its fourth printing. Can you tell us anything about your next writing project?

Osmundson: This book has been a trip, and people have responded to it in ways I could never understand. It’s such a queer book to me, and so much about like dicks, poppers, and butt stuff, but like so so so many straight women have asked, after a reading or after reading it, if I had been a fly on the wall of their shitty relationship. I guess men being trash is a universal truth for all of us who date/fuck them. Fuckbois transcend sexuality.

Inside/Out, as you mentioned, is short and standalone. It was conceived as a single essay. I’ve been working on a full-length narrative nonfiction book for six years now. It’s in round 8492728394 of edits, and I’m working on it with my literary agent who’s amazing and trying to thread it through the place between essays and memoir that will find it a publisher. It’s hard work for both of us, and I’m ready for it to find a loving home.

As you know, I’m a scientist, and that book does a lot more of the lyric science writing that I so love. It puts my life and sex and family on the same page as the molecules that build our bodies, our pleasures. I’ve wanted a family since I was like five, and as I grow older it seems more and more impossible because families rely on other people. Having kids takes money. Money and other people have been the great struggles of my life. The book is an attempt to understand where I come from and why, as a queer body, I need these things so badly, and how I can try not to succumb to the fact that all bodies, even and especially our own bodies, will eventually let us down with their/our fallibility. Being an adult is trash, living in a body is trash, but what a precious awful thing, and the small things that make this trash life feel okay become the things we spend a life chasing. I spent my life chasing the feeling of holding him or him or her or him, depending on the year, for twenty minutes in the morning, her or him or him, and when they left, it was a homecoming, a reckoning, a death, something I will spend my lifetime trying to understand.


Dennis Norris II is a 2017 MacDowell Colony Fellow, a 2016 Tin House Scholar, and a 2015 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. They are the author of Awst Collection—Dennis Norris II published by Awst Press, and their story "Where Every Boy Is Known and Loved" was recently named as Finalist for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology, forthcoming from Braddock Avenue Books. Their story "Last Rites" is included in the forthcoming anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life, to be published in August 2018 by the Atria Books imprint of Simon and Schuster. They hold degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and Haverford College and currently serve as Fiction Editor at Apogee Journal, Assistant Fiction Editor at The Rumpus, and co-host of the popular podcast Food 4 Thot. They live in Harlem and are working on a novel. More from this author →