Sharp and Twisty and Complicated: Talking with Melanie Abrams

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It’s been ten years since Melanie Abrams released her debut novel, Playing (Grove Press/Black Cat)—one of the most intelligent and thoughtful books to engage with kink, BDSM, and some of the more taboo elements of sexuality.

The novel follows Josie, a nanny and graduate student in anthropology, as she immerses herself in a tangle of dominance, submission, childhood, and trauma. What’s striking is that the book goes far beyond the easy connections we see in so many representations of kink in literature or film. Instead we’re given a balance of intense desire, this drive to uncover a kind of origin, and the acceptance that what we find will always be incomplete.

Now Abrams has a forthcoming novel called Meadowlark. After growing up in an austere, isolated commune, two teenagers escape the compound they’ve called home for most of their lives, flee to San Francisco, and go their separate ways. Years later, their lives intersect again when Simrin, now a photographer for a popular blog, discovers that Arjun has become the leader of a new secluded community called Meadowlark, a place where families embrace an unstructured lifestyle that allows children to “know and grow into their truth.”

Not long ago, we met at a café near UC Berkeley’s campus, where she teaches creative writing, to talk about play, Freud, and the difficulty of naming our desires.

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The Rumpus: The book opens with a child. It deals with childhood as a theme. In an era that feels increasingly negative and reactionary regarding all things sexual, were you worried about discussing sexuality in relation to children?

Melanie Abrams: Not really, but that’s probably because I’m drawn to provocation—at least in art. Even as a kid, I was more interested in reading novels that pushed the boundaries of childhood, books where children deal with death and abandonment, like Bridge to Terabithia and Homecoming and then later, really provocative stuff like the cringe-worthy Flowers in the Attic. I’ve always been interested in children’s reality; not the idealized innocence of how children are often portrayed, but the reality of their messy, complicated lives which includes reckoning with sexuality.

That said, I wrote this book before I had my own children. I don’t think I’d shy away from some of the more sexual aspects of the book, but the violence does invoke a different wince than it did before.

Rumpus: The main character, Josie, is someone who has spent a good chunk of her adult life studying anthropology. It’s interesting to me that there’s no subculture here. She doesn’t categorize any of her sexual desires as kink or BDSM or S&M. No age play or spanking fetishism. I’m wondering if, and how, her field of study fits in to the idea that she actively distances herself from seeking out or naming her desires.

Abrams: This is a great question with an unfortunately boring answer. The book was written thirteen years ago when kink was still, for the most part, seen as deviant and something you didn’t talk about. Even the Internet, which was becoming a safe space for people to explore their desires, was porn-based, which for many women feels, if not icky, then at least not the complex emotional landscape sex is internally. I think I read almost every book available on kink, BDSM, etc. There wasn’t much out there! Still, I think Josie experiences a tremendous amount of shame around her desires, and this is where her refusing to name or categorize them comes from. She’s obviously interested in poking around these topics—her interest in death partially stems from her past, and she does explore that, but from the safe distance of studying African rituals. Likewise, she does peek into the world of kink online, but it feels disingenuous—not “real.” Safer to stay in fantasy, safer to not name.

Rumpus: When you were writing her character, did you think of her in those terms or was it possible or necessary to also distance yourself as the author?

Abrams: I did some of both. I definitely wanted her to be uncomfortable categorizing her desires. To categorize them, she would have to understand them, and this is one of the things I hope the book does—follow her as she begins to understand who she is and why she is. Even saying she is kinky minimizes her experience because for her, her desires are incredibly messy and loaded. She has to untangle the who and the why before she can arrive at an understanding of herself and an understanding of what she wants and why she wants it. And what she finally realizes is that desire and longing are messy, and she’s okay with this.

Rumpus: For the purpose of this discussion, I’ve been using “kink,” but do you have a preferred term for the kind of alternative sexuality that Josie and Devesh are engaged in?

Abrams: I like the word kink. It literally means “a sharp twist or curve in something that is otherwise straight,” and that seems both apt for what Devesh and Josie do as well as what’s going on with Josie internally—it’s sharp and twisty and complicated.

Rumpus: Without giving too much away, the reader spends a significant portion of the book thinking that the story may go the way of so many other texts that deal with kink. The kind of trope, at this point, of some kind of childhood trauma explaining away any deviant desires we may have as adults. That’s not to say that this trope doesn’t have some truth or validity, but it often seems as though popular culture represents kink in this way to the exclusion of any other narrative. Did you find it necessary to distance the book from that kind of trope?

Abrams: I struggled with this quite a bit. I definitely didn’t want to descend into this simplistic narrative (kid + trauma = “perverse” sexuality), but you’re right it does have truth to it. I hoped that the book would acknowledge this, and yet also allow that there are many reasons people are the way they are, sexually and emotionally. For Devesh, it’s much easier. He sees his desires as evolutionary adaptations, and he’s even able to see that for some people they may be Freudian. Freud has an essay titled “A Child is Being Beaten” that explores the stages a child goes through on their road to sexual maturity. In the middle of the book, Devesh talks about this with Josie:

“In the first stage, a child imagines a sibling being beaten by his father. In the second stage, the child himself is being beaten by this father, and in the third stage the child watches a number of unknown children being beaten, this time by a supposed surrogate father… a teacher or someone.” He ran his fingers through her hair. “The children who get stuck in that third stage are the ones that grow up to be perverts, turn into sadists and masochists.” He ran his hand down her neck to her belly and tickled her. “Are you a pervert?”

Whichever way Devesh looks at it, it’s much lighter, it is just play, or leela, which as Devesh says, is “divine play. It’s up and down, yin and yang, both sides playing with each other.” It’s a much more manageable way of seeing their play, but, I would argue, not quite whole or all-acknowledging either, which Josie recognizes when she briefly glimpses in him “what she had only felt in herself… the shame that she wore like a black birthmark.”

Still, this multifaceted view is much harder for Josie. It takes the entirety of the book for her to understand that:

…some things had reasons, and some things just were. Some things controlled you, and some you could control. But most were an amalgamation, lacing inside you like a lattice, snaking and spiraling and weaving within each other until it was impossible to tell one from the other.

Rumpus: About the halfway point of the novel, Josie does something that many people would consider pretty horrible. Up to that point, her ethics and actions seem pretty sound. Without giving anything away, was there a concern that her character would be irredeemable for many readers for the entire second half of the book?

Abrams: Absolutely. And I think for some readers, she is irredeemable, which makes it even harder to admit that the original scene was worse. In an earlier draft, she did the thing she doesn’t do. Luckily, I had some very wise readers who suggested that it was much stronger for her to almost do it than to actually do it. And I agree. I should also add that I wrote this before I had my own children. I’m not sure I could write it now! That said, I hope that readers at least understand her impulse even if they can’t sympathize, and that they also see the tremendous amount of shame and guilt she has carried because of it.

Rumpus: And now we’re back to Freud because, for me, the impulse you mention was rather tricky. I thought of Josie as passive, in some ways—as someone who would want to watch rather than act in a context like that. So the impulse for her to take action felt like this complex negotiation of desire and something like obligation. Do you think Josie imagines her forays into the darker parts of her sexuality as a kind of ethnographic research? Not in a negative or critical way, but perhaps as a form of exploration, with something like the safety net of a frame or a known structure?

Abrams: For the first part, it does make sense, and I think that distance or watching was an important aspect of her character.

Rumpus: The third stage of the child being beaten.

Abrams: Right, and I’d say that Josie’s journey across the novel is an exploration, a process of sometimes-unwilling discovery, but “ethnography” inevitably brings some pre-existing theory into play, some framework of the self and other. Josie has all of that apparatus ready when she looks outwards, but they are absent when she gazes inward, especially early in the book. She acts and reacts. What is happening is too overwhelming to theorize, to distance herself from.

Rumpus: In the scene, where Josie and Devesh are talking about Freud’s essay, she’s trying to get at the root of her obsessions with spanking, discipline, age play. And he’s essentially telling her there doesn’t need to be a cause, sometimes things just are. There’s a tension between each of their viewpoints, but I wonder if there is a third, more subtle perspective at work as well. Josie’s interest in anthropology, in Ghanaian and later Indian culture, along with her nuanced understanding of sexism in America, hint toward another way of thinking of sexuality and violence and how our desires are shaped. Do you think that social, and maybe historical, violence surrounding issues of race, class, and gender, among other things, have an impact on the way alternative sexualities like kink or BDSM are shaped? And if so, how do those ideas of oppression and violence fit into Josie and Devesh’s relationship?

Abrams: Oh, for sure. You’d have to be naive or intentionally deluding yourself to think that kink occurs in a bubble. I don’t think I’m qualified to take on the race issues (though clearly they’re there), and even the gender issues are probably better left up to the critics, but undoubtedly there’s a connection between patriarchal culture and submission and domination, both for women and men. I’m sure some of the intoxication of submission for women has to do with the fact that they’ve internalized the patriarchy.

And for men, there must be intense pleasure in giving up this power, but that also seems simplistic. Arousal, pleasure, fantasy. They’re so multifaceted that it feels reductive to say that anyone is any way only because of a specific oppression. Still, I’m fascinated by all the critical work out there (and there’s so much more than when I wrote the book) that I wouldn’t want to imply that these arguments aren’t worthy of discussion and debate. I tend to write about characters who are trying to understand and exorcise childhood trauma, so my exploration tends to stem from very internal places. The characters may come to some larger understanding of their impulses and actions finally, but first they feel and act and experience. As a writer, I think I tend to work from the inside out, from within the characters to some—inevitably incomplete—understanding of the larger world.

Rumpus: Your upcoming book, like Playing, touches on issues of childhood, trauma, and Indian culture. And it’s kink-free. How has moving away from a focus on kink affected how you approached writing Meadowlark?

Abrams: I’ve always been interested in how childhood trauma affects adults, but with Meadowlark, I was curious as to how cults/communes/intentional communities affect the children who grow up there. In Playing, Josie suffers from the consequences of her own actions, both intentional and accidental, but in Meadowlark, it’s the parents that are doing the traumatizing. I was really interested in how parents, despite their good intentions, can fuck up their children. There’s that great Philip Larkin quote: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do” that was often on my mind when I wrote the book.

In Playing, we see a little of this—Josie is greatly affected by her cold and distant mother, and Josie’s actions may permanently affect Tyler—but it’s not the focus of the book. Meadowlark is a novel with multiple points of view, and I was able to explore all of this in, hopefully, a much more expansive, and nuanced, way.

I’m married to an Indian, and have spent a lot of time in India, so it makes sense that India finds its way into a lot of my writing, but in Meadowlark it presents as a watered down new age version of Eastern spirituality with a heavy dose of Hinduism.

I think I did try and intentionally distance myself from writing about kink, and really sex in general, after Playing. There’s a lot of shame in that book, and it was a difficult place to occupy for so long. Of course, kink and shame don’t need to go hand in hand, but the sex and violence of the book took up a lot of headspace, and I was ready for something lighter… like cults! It’s funny, though, because when I first sent the book to my agent, I realized there was literally no sex in the entire book—not even a kiss—and this actually felt very wrong to me. I needed that charge to make it feel like mine, and the book needed it, so now there’s a little sex. But just a little. I can imagine going back to writing, not necessarily about kink, but about sex and power dynamics in the future.


Eric Longfellow holds a PhD in English/creative writing and has taught composition and creative writing courses at Illinois State University and San Francisco State University. He has editorial experience working for Dalkey Archive Press and Fiction Collective Two. Previous writing can be found in The Rumpus, CutBank Literary Magazine, and American Book Review, among other places. More from this author →