The Rumpus Interview with Maggie Nelson


I have known Maggie Nelson for more then ten years. We met in NYC just before she decamped to Los Angles to teach at CalArts. Maggie is that rare writer, a true woman of letters. She writes poetry, non-fiction, and criticism. Her book The Art of Cruelty was featured on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, and her book length lyric essay Bluets is a cult classic. She’s been awarded, among other prizes, both a Guggenheim and an NEA fellowship.

The Argonauts, Nelson’s new book out May 5th from Graywolf Press, centers on falling in love with the artist Harry Dodge and the pregnancy and birth of their son Iggy. The book moves effortlessly from snippets of high theory to meditations on sex, motherhood, death, and the challenges of long-term partnership. Our conversation took place over email, in February, with my questions flying out from snowy Brooklyn and her answers winging in from sunny LA.


The Rumpus: In your new book, which by the way I adore, I felt you moving forward not just artistically, by smashing the poetic and the self-confession of Bluets against your critical text The Art of Cruelty, but also spiritually and emotionally. I was really interested in your move from jilted lover to mother. I was reminded of what the theologian Henri Nouwen says about the story of the prodigal son, that every one first identifies with the prodigal son, but ultimately we are all called to be the loving and accepting father. One of the ways in your book that this transformation enacts is through sex, which I will get to in later questions, but that movement is even more present in the idea of CARE, the constant and committed care of family life. This care is sometimes spiritual but always physical. Reading The Argonauts, I kept thinking of the recent Robert Gober show at MOMA, particularly his sculpture of the empty wedding dress, and bags of kitty litter, this idea of the oath made in marriage “in sickness and in health till death do us part.” The promise we make to care for the body of our loved one, not only sexually but also in illness and even as the body decays with age and finally in death. Your book deals with the death of Harry’s mother but I felt this idea of sacred care also in your writing about your son Iggy. It’s an extremely religious idea that care for the other is the hot scared center of life. Can you comment on this?

Maggie Nelson: I’m super glad you liked, adored even, the book. Very heartening! And I am also so glad you start out with the question of CARE, which is, as the last line of the book proposes, one of its principal concerns—it’s almost its last word.

My only quibble with your question would be the temporal factor it introduces, as if it’s only or primarily over time that we ultimately become the loving father, whereas we all start out the prodigal son. Clearly the gendered nature of these terms are a little odd, too, but I’m going there with you, for the moment! I mean, it really does often happen that way—by which I mean that very often, the shift you describe does occur with time, usually because, if we’re lucky, time allows us to occupy many different subject positions over the course of a lifetime. And without a doubt, this book reconsiders the hard times I may have given my parents and stepparents from the newish POV of being a parent and stepparent myself. But I would also hold out a very clear and ample space for people who practice care throughout their lives, or at times that don’t match this template. That is to say, it’s not just for the older and the wiser. Nor is it something that I see families or mothers or married people or the religious having any monopoly on, though of course there can be scenes of intense care in those arenas. But those arenas can also be scenes of intense un-care, neglect, and harm.

Likewise, the culture often—willfully, or fearfully, or ignorantly, or murderously—misrepresents certain people, scenes as nodes of un-care. It did so with gay men during the AIDS crisis, when gay men were in fact providing astonishing care for each other, care the state refused to provide. It does so now for black folks whose kinship is repetitively frayed by a racist criminal justice system, and so on. So I think one has to be really careful when one goes about naming places, or privileging places, where care takes place. There is so much care going on that should be recognized; there is also so much care not going on, which should also be sniffed out and called to account. I’m interested in attending to both things.

Also, while I think it’s a typo when you say “that care for the other is the hot scared center of life,” I really like it. It’s sacred and it’s scared. There is a lot to be scared of in caretaking. There’s also a part of it that is very ordinary—the “ordinary devotion” theorized by Winnicott, or maybe what Fred Moten calls, with more loaded dice, “the socialization of the maternal function.”

My last quibble is the reminder that one can become a jilted lover at any time; being a mother certainly offers no protection there! Maybe you’re gathering that I’m into a certain horizontality of positions, rather than a ladder. But you’re definitely right that this book is about being deeply enmeshed in relation, whereas Bluets was more about grappling with a painful solitude. Or maybe another way of saying it, Bluets was about grappling with one’s relation to oneself, which the painful absence of a beloved can make alarmingly possible.

You’ve written so well on the spiritual dimension of both of these spheres yourself; I’m curious as to your thoughts!

Rumpus: Let’s get back to the spiritual here soon. First, I want to say I appreciate this reminder that care occurs not only within certain age groups or institutions. The Gober pieces I mentioned actually reference the AIDS crisis and the care given within the gay community during that horrible, unjust time. Also, I think you learn a lot from being a jilted lover, you make this clear in Bluets, and Elena Ferante’s book Days Of Abandonment also focuses on the crucial self-knowledge obtained in heartbreak. Your new book, though, is not about heartbreak. It’s about falling deeply in love, trying to make a family, and becoming a mother. What makes the narrative so exciting is your honesty about your family’s particular strengths and struggles. Something I really identified with was your ambivalence about the idea of family life. I have often felt the family structure to be a self-serving and selfish institution, as well as a potentially harmful one. But the general culture tends to both aggrandize and sentimentalize the family. In your new book you mention Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting, in which she cuts an outline of a family (with two triangle skirts) into her back. Your response: “Who wants a version of the Prop 8 poster but with two triangle skirts?” Can you talk about your feelings of both ambivalence and longing for family. What is family to you?

Nelson: You really zero in on the hard questions! I love it. I have had a lot of ambivalence about the idea of family life, as you say. In fact, before I met Harry, “family” was not a word I ever really used or ever wanted to use, for all the familiar feminist, queer, and collectivity-based arguments against it. What became interesting via talking to him was how comfortable he was with the term, how he used it so widely and happily. It really amazed me. He would probably say this comfort came from years and years of living in a queer subculture, so that the concept for him always meant chosen family more than the nasty, privatized, oedipalized, sanctified, heterosexist, sentimentalized, used-as-an-excuse-to-persecute-all-perverts, and/or violent nuclear family. So that has probably had a profound influence on me. In some ways it was probably the condition of possibility that has allowed me to overcome my ambivalence enough to write something that could be called “a book about my family,” words that still sound somewhat foreign to my ears.

But really the point of the Cathy Opie story was to make space for nuance. It’s all too easy to collapse the terms and say, “Oh, I see you’re longing for a family, which must mean you’ve joined the club of all ‘normal,’ family-desiring people.” There’s some truth in such statements, and then there are whole truckloads of untruth. Anyway, I’ve come to realize that it’s a gift to one’s kids to allow them a full and rich sense of family rather than be stingy with the term—especially if by “family,” you just mean, people who love them regardless of blood relation. So I’m all for that. I’m also all for family in the sense of intellectual family, historical family, et cetera. But I remain squarely against a more parochial view of family that imagines it as a site for people more deserving of human rights, such as health care and so on, or as the privileged locus for the production of “values.”

Rumpus: It was also through raising my daughter that I realized how important an idea—the broader the better—of family was to her sense of self and stability. When she was little and she liked someone, she’d always ask me, “Are they in our family?” And I always said yes.

I want to focus for a few questions here on motherhood. For me giving birth too and raising my daughter radicalized me. I finally understood my own power in an elemental and important way. At the same time I remember being very worried about losing my edge both sexually and intellectually. In the first weeks of breast-feeding I’d read the New York Review of Books cover to cover with a sort of desperate intensity. There was so much in the culture about mothers being soft-brained. The section in your book where you talk about the critic Jane Gallop showing slides of the birth of her son and trying to talk critically about the experience of motherhood and then, in response, Rosaline Kraust calling her “soft-brained, narcissistic and naïve” really effected me. Do you think that in the literary and critical world mothering is seen as a soft topic? Did you feel worried about how having Iggy would change you and also change the way people thought about you?

Nelson: I like your statement that you were radicalized. That seems to me a truly great outcome. To answer your question specifically, of course the literary and critical world sees mothering as a soft topic. Don’t you think? It’s everywhere, and it’s so pathetic. Even terrific writers like Joy Williams can seemingly find no better way to review bad boy Denis Johnson than to start out mocking a mother on the plane whose toddler is spilling juice—the ever-present contaminating juice! Savvy women writers of all stripes still often express a conflict between picking Cheerios out of their bras and writing “serious literature.” I don’t personally feel this conflict—it’s just not the way I conceptualize or experience it. Which isn’t to say I don’t understand it. So no, I didn’t worry about being changed in any negative way by having Iggy, nor have I ever worried what anyone would think of me on its account. I mean, if you dug The Art of Cruelty because I talk about edgy guy art but then feel yucked out or disinterested here because I’m describing a placenta, your loss. Nor, frankly, did I feel at all intellectually softened by having a baby. I mean, some people do feel this way, which is cool—it’s a hormonal and sleep-deprived thing, and also probably a natural offshoot of spending a lot of time in such a slowed-down, deep intensity space that isn’t about language per se. There’s so much of value in this space, even if it isn’t always immediately conducive to literary production. But for whatever reason I didn’t really have that brain fuzz. I mean, this is the book I wrote during the first year of his life, and it seems to me on a clear continuum with my prior thinking and writing.

That said, sure, I have some internalized matrophobia, which rears its head whenever I get invited to be on a panel about maternity or some such. Some of this is because the terms of engagement are not often all that queer or critical, and, I don’t always feel comfortable with the baseline premises, which can slip pretty quickly into pretty essentialist notions. These notions aren’t all false and certainly they are worth investigating—better to investigate them than continue to repress the maternal, under whatever cover—but I do often find myself preferring that the terms were more nuanced, inclusive, radical. You know, can we talk about the maternal function, whatever that might be, without invariably tethering it to the maternal body? How can we have that conversation without eliding the maternal body? Should we be hanging onto something called “the maternal function,” or should we be talking about an “ordinary devotion” that people of all genders can participate in? Should we be talking about forms of devotion and care that exceed and exist apart from the baby/mother/parent model?

It should also be said that there are a lot of writers doing amazing work right now that doesn’t do any special arguing for maternity as a fundamental category of human experience and knowledge—it just presumes it to be, and soars from there. So that’s inspiring. I think The Argonauts kind of tries to do both. It does some special arguing or at least laying out of terms of what the problem has historically been (regarding the Krauss and Gallop story), and also some leaping forward, some writing which airs no grievance but just assumes and acts on the importance of its content. Harry and I are always having this debate in our house: should the work rehearse the problem, or should it try to leap over it? He’s a natural leaper; I can be a natural rehearser. But that’s why Roland Barthes’s comment in RB by RB about active/reactive writing has been so liberating to me: “In what he writes, there are two texts. Text I is reactive, moved by indignations, fears, unspoken rejoinders, minor paranoias, defenses, scenes. Text II is active, moved by pleasure.” The Argonauts is a book with these two texts running through it; it doesn’t put pressure on itself to choose.

Rumpus: I want to get to nothingness and God soon, but first, one more question on the topic of motherhood. In some of these answers you seem to want to take the outcome of loving, caring, mothering, domestic life out of its more familiar framework and talk about its actuality, or maybe even its spiritual movement. I find this an interesting impulse and an important one. I also found giving birth and raising my daughter both joyous and intellectually interesting. Still I am dismayed by the way the general culture treats motherhood. I remember being asked to write for Mothers Who Think and being very uncomfortable with the idea that this suggested, that mothers in general don’t think. You quote in your book from the New York Times Book Review Mother’s Day cover: “No subject offers a greater opportunity for terrible writing than motherhood.” All this just seems like misogyny to me frankly, a systemic devaluing that’s been going on forever. Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the motherhood topics that get the most media ink are so stupid and polarizing, Mommy War topics like should mothers work or not and also ideas of various child rearing strategies. I have often wanted to elevate discussions around mothering. In Savage Park, a new book by Amy Fusselman, she meditates as a mother and human on the idea of safety and I found your new book, too, to be doing the kind of engaged and philosophical work around mothering I have longed for. Can you comment on this? Also are there texts you can share with us that engage with mothering intelligently and provocatively, that as you say are type II texts, active and moved by pleasure?

Nelson: First, I want to say that I just read your piece on your mother and Frankenstein and rage and darkness and Paris and everything, and I’m bowled over by it, it’s so moving and deep.

Next, I will say that yes, I agree with you. It’s just plain old misogyny, that NYTBR review I quote, and other things of that ilk. It really bothers me when women—or men too, I guess—attempt to gain and often do gain cultural capital by participating in this systemic devaluing, as you say, all the while acting like they’re saying or doing something truly edgy or risky. It’s a classic move for people with power they don’t want to lose or people who hope power will rub off on them if they align themselves with it. You know, people acting like underdogs when really they’re reaping the benefits of normativity, of being on top of the heap. Fox News, anyone? I prefer old school Audre Lorde’s version of risk:

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference; those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are black, who are older, know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures, in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish.

I will look up Amy Fusselman’s new book now. I can’t say I have a bunch of type II books, but I will tell you some of the texts that have been most useful to me recently on this account (though not all are recent): Fred Moten’s In the BreakEula Biss’s On Immunity, Leslie Dick’s The Skull of Charlotte Cordaya piece called “Mothers” by Jacqueline Rose in a recent London Review of Books, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s discussion of the activist group Mothers Reclaiming Our Children in her anti-prison book, Golden Gulag, Fanny Howe’s The Wedding Dress, Hortense Spiller’s 1987 essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” and poetry by some of my standby favorites, including Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, and Lucille Clifton. I liked Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation too. I was also fascinated by a 2007 documentary about painter Alice Neel made by her grandson Andrew Neel. And, of course, there’s an amazing writer named Darcey Steinke who recently wrote a probing piece about her mother for Granta.

Rumpus: You are too kind! I love this list. Without Falling by Leslie Dick was so important to me as a young writer. I wish you were near by so we could have a reading group.

So I want to move to a few questions about the spiritual. I want to talk about your interest in Buddhism, but first I want to touch on the Anne Carson talk you mention in the book. I was there that night too! I think she talked about Sappho some, but her main focus was Simone Weil. She riffed on Weil’s idea of the void, of making a space inside yourself for the divine to rush into. “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.” You write that this idea kept you going in “heart or art for years.” On the first page of The Argonauts, you say “nothing you say can fuck up the space for God.” Can you talk about the regenerative quality of this God/void. How did it help you over the years, with life, with your work?

Nelson: So, I’ve been stuttering over your question for a couple of days now. I guess I’m stuttering because I want to say two things that contradict one another. The first is to reiterate the importance of space, of silence, of void. Yes, of course. But insofar as worshipping at that altar might bring one toward the veneration of not speaking, not writing, I find myself wandering off. So the second thing would be the fact that to perceive empty spaces, to make a space for God to rush in, there typically has to be some kind of invented composition—maybe you could call it a theater—that brings our attention to the play of absence and presence. Writing is one place to make such a composition, to create such a theater. In The Argonauts I bring this concept up via bonsai plants, since bonsai is an extremely self-conscious instance of this phenomenon: via this little theater of a miniature tree, which is carefully planted off center (unlike Lily Briscoe’s stroke) and pruned daily in order to create an illusion of scale, one invents an opportunity to meditate on the divine. In any event, it has been a tremendous relief for me, as a writer, not to worry about fucking up the space for God or whatever you want to call it via writing. Maybe this is all taking me back to Annie Dillard, my first writing teacher, whose influence on me abides, and who famously and reassuringly once wrote, “You don’t run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled. You’ll have fish left over.” In other words, the empty-handedness is important, but so is that faith that you’ll have fish leftover, which is, to me, another way of saying you can’t fuck up the space for God, sans swears.

Rumpus: The idea that the faith involved in creating or honoring the void (or the waiting) may be just as important as the void itself is very interesting to me. I’ve always been interested in apophatic theology which claims that the best way to know God is through unknowing. Not just Carson and Weil share this idea, but also older texts like The Cloud of Unknowing and “Dark Night of the Soul,” the idea that unlearning, dismantling meta-narratives, shedding assumptions about the metaphysical may be better ways to proceed then certainty and judgment. I think this is particularly true of writing, where what you don’t know about a story is often a more fertile place to consider then what you do. In The Argonauts I felt you working with this idea but also that you were poking it, pushing it forward a little. The book ends with the idea of care. I wonder if care, to you, is the embodiment of faith, its practice.

Nelson: I have a suspicion that you may have been as curious as I was about Mother Teresa’s “dark letters” crisis of faith, revealed after her death—her posthumously published letters that said things like, “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself—for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.’” I mean, the idea that Mother Teresa lost contact with God for decades but that that lost contact had no bearing on whether or not she did “the work” was, is, very moving to me—because at the end of the day, what matters more, the faith or the work? I think the work. In other words, care is absolutely possible without faith; perhaps it’s most impressive that way.

I am super interested in care, and so is The Argonauts. But I don’t think we get anywhere by preaching at others, many of whom may be inclined toward a more solitary or at least more unencumbered way of life, that a certain devotion to “caring for others” is the only worthwhile way to conduct a life. I’m not just talking about giving stingy, stone-hearted libertarians the space to be assholes or making space for controversial practices that some would call flat-out uncaring, such as barebacking. I’m also talking about the fact that there are certain bodies out there who have been historically called upon to shoulder the burden of caring more than others—women, most notably, people of color, poor people—and that these people are often in the most drastic need of care themselves. So I guess I’m interested in a whole overhaul of how we think about care, who does the lion’s share of it, who “deserves” it, who’s paid for it, how to get the best version of it to the most people, by which I mean to everyone. I want to know how can we give everyone the care that they, that we, all need without unduly whittling away at the more extreme asocial possibilities for the human animal.

Rumpus: I think in the end the work/act is more important of course. Though as someone who prays/meditates I feel angry and frustrated at this idea some too, the idea that acts are always more important then faith. I think this is because I feel faith and acts as deeply connected. Very often the faith is the roots, and the acts, the plant. So you can’t separate them really. I think because we live in a material, Enlightenment world we think this way. I think this is true of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. I believe the passion and strength of those actions were fueled by faith and prayer. They always started in prayer and then acted. And lots of brave acts are like that. You may not be able to see the faith, but it’s part and parcel of the act, what makes the act possible.

I want to ask some questions about sex and about your honesty.

But first staying with care a bit longer. I was really moved in The Argonauts with your detailing you partners Harry’s top surgery. The idea of the frustration of living in his skin beforehand, you write about the chest binding and how you would wake to a bedroom floor littered with “doctored sports bras, strips of dirty fabric,” objects which Harry called “smashers.” And then the top surgery itself in Florida, how to save money you brought along a hot plate and cooked meals in the hotel room while he recovered. There is so much care and love in the details of that week. It’s also really interesting to me that both your bodies were changing, yours with the pregnancy and Harry’s by the T and the surgery.

You are also honest about at first having mixed feelings about his surgery. But eventually you come to admire that Harry is willing to do something so drastic to make his life better. And I was really loving this very modern context for something I have always felt was one of the harder and more challenging things in relationships, to care for others even as they change and as that change might, at first, scare us.

Nelson: Yes, exactly. That’s why I jokingly—but not all the way jokingly—say, “In other words, we were aging,” after talking about our parallel bodily changes. Because if you stay with someone over time, or for the super long-haul, you’re going to go through big changes physically, as well as mentally—voluntary bodily modifications like top surgery just underscore or amplify a phenomenon that’s always already, or at least eventually, at play. One of my dearest friends in the world became a quadriplegic at fifty. I wrote about her in Bluets. Now she has an astonishing memoir coming out from NYU Press called Body Undone. Her relationship with her lover has survived nearly unthinkable bodily transformation and struggle and pressurized caretaking. Watching them navigate that over the past decade has been extremely inspiring to me—not that her undesired accident bears any relation to H’s much-desired surgery. I’m just talking about the wide range of bodily experiences and alterations that can be part of a conjoined life.

I don’t know much about it, but it seems pretty clear to me that, if you want to stay together with someone, allowing yourself to become all-consumed by a fear of the changes the other person wants and needs to make or that they undergo independent of their will, is not your best move. I mean, it seems right that change scares us because we don’t know what’s going to be on its other side, and there’s no guarantee the change will bring us what we want. And sometimes the change means the relationship has to die. Sometimes it means compromise. There’s no guarantee.

Rumpus: Let’s stay on the body for another question. In The Argonauts, as in Bluets, you write frankly about sex. The book opens on a scene of you and Harry having anal sex, and in another section you write about a film sequence in which a woman is having feathers sewn onto her butt. I really appreciated the way you wonder if queerness, among other things, might also question the idea that sex is the be-all and end-all. I also love your honesty about your body and sex after pregnancy. You wonder if fragility can be exchanged for bravado, if fragility can be erotized. Can you talk about writing about sex, its challenges for you and also how having Iggy may have changed your feelings about the loudness of sex in the greater culture?

Nelson: You know, I actually wish I wrote more about sex—by which I mean true sex writing or pornographic writing, as it’s one of my favorite genres, depending on who’s writing, of course. I’ve admired sex writing by Eileen Myles and Bruce Benderson and Herve Guibert and Georges Bataille and Paul Preciado and Catherine Millet and Harriet Daimler and Pat Califia, to name just a handful. But I don’t really conceive of what I’m doing, or at least what I’ve written to date, as inside that tradition, at least not directly. I mean, I make references to sex, but I don’t typically write long scenes detailing, you know, the shape of someone’s clit hood or the way cum looks suspended on an eyelash and so on. Maybe someday I will!

When I was an undergraduate, I wrote my thesis on Foucault and the notion of confession, aveu. A good Foucauldian, I grew to understand that certain utterances have the appearance of transgression only within the logic of a confessional society, i.e. one operating under the repressive hypothesis—or maybe better translated, the hypothesis of repression. I think I’ve developed a certain talent or taste for staging that transgression, while also understanding that staging as kind of a ruse, with broad possibilities beyond it. By which I mean to say I’m interested in traditional “breaking silences” types of writing—saying things that haven’t been said, that likely disrupt or amaze or relieve, and so on—while I’m also interested in sex writing which sets up shop outside the norms of confessional logic or culture. The latter doesn’t always see itself as transgressive per se, not because it’s inoffensive—it’s astonishingly easy to offend people—but rather because it refuses the logic by which sex is, fundamentally, something that must be confessed. So many people can only understand autobiography or sex writing within a confessional logic, so they end up missing out on a lot of the other avenues of action, and stay imprisoned in their own puritan projections.

The Argonauts is totally into what I call “sodomitical maternity,” a phrase I stole from Susan Fraiman. It’s also about not putting pressure on mothers (or anyone) to be sexual or sex positive or whatever when they’re exhausted, not into it, and so on. My students tell me all the time that when they watch Beyoncé or whomever showing photos of their kid on a huge screen while bumping uglies with their guy onstage during a world tour et cetera, they often just feel tired and intimidated rather than excited to be and have it all. An increasing number seem to self-identify as asexual—I’ve even heard some of them try to reclaim the word “frigid”—rather than as being super into perversity and promiscuity, which was all the rage when I came up and which obviously had a formative effect on me.

As for the last part of your query—since we were talking earlier about Leslie Dick, whom I’m lucky enough to have as a colleague here at CalArts—I started thinking about this passage in a story of hers called “Separations,” in which two newish mothers are hanging out and the narrator reports on their dialogue as follows: “‘Let’s face it,’ she said, gesturing toward her eighteen-month-old son, ‘I get much more out of this relationship than I ever could with any man.’ And I thought, she said it. She said it out loud, she said the unsayable thing.” Putting aside the man part for a second—if you can—and also putting aside the fact that, yes, it’s in some ways utterly stereotypical to think of new mothers as undergoing a shift, usually a temporary one, of their affections from partner to baby, I’m interested in what, here, is the unsayable thing. Personally I think Dick is offering a swift and subtle undermining of Freudian logic, which holds—incredibly, laughably—that women suffer from penis envy and that when they finally accept that they can’t have a penis, they settle for a “penis-baby” instead. So maybe the unsayable thing is how primary, physical, satisfying, erotic, consuming, and/or pleasurable the caretaking of a baby can be—and that this caretaking may be primary, not a substitute.

Now, I’m well-aware how normative this may all sound, but I also remain convinced, perhaps with Dick—love the pun of her name here—and with Adrienne Rich, in her classic “Compulsory Heterosexuality” essay, that there’s something radical and as yet unarticulated on this account. It’s something that stands outside of homosexuality or heterosexuality or whatever sexuality and has more to do with the question of how many apertures we are able to keep open at any given time vis-à-vis bodily transmission, contact, devotion.

I am also well aware of the fact that there’s a whole different track of feminist thinking and writing that would rather emphasize “the unsayable thing” as the difficulty of mothering—which can land one anywhere on the spectrum from a simple, disillusioned sense of non-enjoyment and ambivalence to severe depression—you know, suicidal, maybe even homicidal, despair. That unsayable matters a lot too. But I guess what I’m trying to get at in The Argonauts has more to do with the question of non-normative, still under-articulated pleasures. This is due to the fact that the book is a nonfiction account of my own experience, which, thankfully, has not been characterized by displeasure, desperation, or desolation, for a whole host of serendipitous —i.e. hormonal—and also over determined—i.e. my abundant privilege—reasons.

Rumpus: I have noticed with my daughter, who is nineteen, and her friends that there is much less focus on sex and relationships then when I came up. Relationships seem to be just one of many things she is interested in, not the main, overarching concern. I think this is because we are finally getting to the point in history where a women does not need to be married in order to survive. In fact her survival depends more on her own self-development than attracting a partner.

You mention autobiography and confession above, and I wanted to ask a question about something you say in your book about the novel. You write that you and Harry generally don’t like fiction because “it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the position—stuffed a narrative full of false choices and hooked you on them, rending you less able to see out, to get out.” I think this is true of bad novels for sure. And sadly it seems a large portion of the reading public prefers a realistic happy ending novel, though I would fight to the death for the novel form at its best. I was wondering if your feelings are akin to David Shield’s in his manifesto Reality Hunger, his idea that realistic fiction is “failing to reflect lived reality” and that art need to “engage more directly with contemporary life.” I feel the Knausgard craze is part of this as well. Do you feel your work is part of a rising literary zeitgeist?

Nelson: Well, that moment in the text is more of a performative one than an actual dogmatic stance; it is also, as you say, most relevant to debased forms of narrative. The surrounding text of the The Argonauts reveals this stance to be fundamentally a ruse, as the book’s first paragraph underscores the importance of Beckett, then uses fiction writers from Dodie Bellamy to Alice Munro as touchstones along the way. It’s true that I’m not a huge fan of contemporary realist fiction per se—with notable exceptions—and it’s also true that I’ve been hard on narrative elsewhere—The Red Parts, mostly, whose original title, before I realized Lydia Davis had already gotten there, was The End of the Story. But I think it would be pretty self-serving to argue that nonfiction is the more privileged and necessary genre just because I happen to like it and do it. There are some terrific practitioners of the art of nonfiction writing right now, for sure—maybe no more than there have ever been at any given moment, I don’t know. There may just be more commodified categories to slot people into right now: “lyric essay,” “creative nonfiction,” and so on. I’m most comfortable leaving conversations about literary zeitgeist to others. But I’m always thrilled to champion writers who I think are amazing. And I do really, really love the long tradition of what I call “life writing,” which includes people such as Sei Shonogan and Sir Thomas Browne and Violette LeDuc and Marguerite Duras and James Baldwin and Clarice Lispector and, yes, Karl Ove Knausgaard, along with so many, many more.

Rumpus: I would have claimed many of the above as novelists, but I see how the texture of their prose and their projects have some things in common too, and so “life writing,” I like that!

You have worked in so many forms, poetry, crime fiction, criticism, and as you say “life writing.” You have also done much good work in breaking down categories and working in between genres? What would you like to write next?

Nelson: You’re right, many of the above are novelists—in fact I had originally written something into my answer about the nonfiction/fiction seam, but I omitted it because the names seemed to speak gracefully for themselves. As for what’s next, I hope it’s okay to say that I don’t know. I have some topics of interest to me, topics that would sound completely unrelated to the naked ear but which are intimately conjoined in my mind by a certain discourse on freedom or a history of what Moten has called “the freedom drive.” So for now, I’m just going to keep at the research and see what happens.


Author photograph © Harry Dodge.

Darcey Steinke is the author of the memoir Easter Everywhere (a New York Times Notable Book) and the novels Milk, Jesus Saves, Suicide Blonde, and Up Through the Water, and Sister Golden Hair. More from this author →