The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #165: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s Sketchtasy was released October 2018 from Arsenal Pulp to widespread critical acclaim, including a place on NPR’s “Best Books of 2018.” Sketchtasy is Sycamore’s third novel, after So Many Ways to Sleep Badly (2008) and Pulling Taffy (2005); she’s also written two memoirs and edited four anthologies, all investigating questions of queer community and radical politics. In Sketchtasy, Sycamore turns her queer eye to the gay club scene of mid-90s Boston and follows Alexa, a young queen trying to get by.
Sycamore’s choice to set this novel in 1995 Boston allows her to intervene in contemporary fantasies of that time. As Corinne Manning writes in BOMB, “This isn’t the ‘90s era for which we currently pine nostalgic and seek to emulate in literature and fashion, but one where desire is wrapped up with death and where the horror of the Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton administrations went largely unchecked by mainstream public outcry.”
As someone also interested in looking back at the 90s to see what they can tell us about today, I jumped at the opportunity to talk with Sycamore about that time, about nostalgia, and about how she wrote this powerful, funny, and urgent novel.
The Rumpus: Perhaps because we met there so many years ago, I think of you as a San Francisco writer. And now you’ve written this brilliant new novel, Sketchtasy, that so exactly captures mid-’90s Boston. What does it mean to you to write about places that aren’t San Francisco?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Everywhere I’ve lived has formed me in different ways. I moved to San Francisco when I was nineteen in search of a way to survive the world on my own terms. And I found other queers and outsiders and outcasts and dropouts and freaks and whores and vegans and anarchists and incest survivors dedicated to creating a world that wasn’t predicated on the violence around us. Trying and failing miserably, but still trying. In that sense San Francisco is my most formative place.
I lived in Boston at the time Sketchtasy takes place, a very different 1995 than San Francisco. There wasn’t a way to be radical and queer and have a culture around you that actually supported that. The closest thing I found was Boston gay club culture, in all its hypocrisy and hideousness, but also in all its possibility for a kind of pageantry that allowed for an escape from everyday violence (even if it magnified that violence at the same time).
I started writing this book from my own experiences, but that shifted pretty fast to the trauma of living in Boston at that time, in a city rabidly afraid of difference, in a gay culture that magnified all the worst aspects of straight normalcy—racism, misogyny, AIDS-phobia, internalized shame, classism. And the trauma of growing up with AIDS suffusing your desires and not being able to imagine any way out of that certainty of death. Early death. Untimely death.
Rumpus: I really appreciate how you name growing up at that time as a trauma for young queer people, and how you show us that trauma ramifying throughout Alexa’s life. I also appreciate how you’ve communicated such a visceral sense of the cultural moment through Alexa’s voice, how she uses and thinks through language. Your writing brings to my mind other queer writers like David Wojnarowicz, who I know you’ve mentioned in other interviews as an influence. Can you talk more about your aesthetic lineage, who formed you as a writer?
Bernstein Sycamore: Originally I was a poet, and when I discovered language poetry, it was like, describe everything you’ve ever experienced in your life and edit it down to nine words on the page! I wanted to change language. I went to this elite Ivy League school I had worked my whole life for. And what I learned at that Ivy League school was that I had to get the fuck away if I was going to learn anything. That’s when I moved to San Francisco, and that’s when my writing changed. That’s when I became a hooker. I had all these great stories and my friends were like, “Oh my god, girl, you need to write that down.” To me it felt very mundane, but I thought, “Well, let me just try it.” And it was a different kind of writing because I was writing to avoid disappearing. I was writing to convey what was happening. Because there wasn’t much writing in the world to describe what was actually happening to me and the people around me. And that was when I remembered I was sexually abused as a kid by my father. I needed to write in order to remember.
I would say the way I edit—which is how I formed the final product of the text—comes from writing language poetry and also from activism, from perfecting a kind of activist slogan that becomes so clear that you have to come inside. The first book that really influenced me was Troubled by His Complexion by Lissa Mclaughlin. It’s in second person, and the “you” freed me to think about an all-encompassing narration. This was the same time period when I first found David Wojnarowicz’s writing, the first time I saw my rage at the world in print, and also a feeling of maybe a little bit of hope in a world of loss. But what I really learned from him was the way he writes about sex in everyday experience: desire in taking the subway or in going to a movie or walking down the street—it’s always there. And it’s not there only as desire; it’s there as something that shifts the way you experience the world.
Bernstein Sycamore: I think those are things that he gave me. I’m not sure if there’s a literal influence in the writing other than that I have a similar sexuality and way of talking about sex and desire and intimacy and lust. Okay so those are the similarities! [Laughs] And the refusal to accept what we are told are the boundaries of our writing. This is very much how he would talk about it, too: not fitting into the structure we’re supposed to be inside. If we’re getting out of those structures, we also have to write outside of them.
Rumpus: Can we get outside those structures? This is making me think about queer and trans books in the world. Recently on Facebook you posted about your love for LGBT sections in bookstores. Sketchtasy has just come out from Arsenal Pulp, a wonderful small press which is hugely influential in queer and trans publishing. What have you been thinking about queer and trans publishing these days?
Bernstein Sycamore: Yes, some great small presses are publishing really interesting queer work. But the queer and trans voices actually writing challenging work are systematically excluded, for the most part, from what is considered mainstream publishing. Occasionally people slip through. But overall, that doesn’t change the structure. Some LGBT and queer writers say, “Oh I don’t want to be in the LGBT section” and what they mean is, they don’t want their work to be ghettoized. And, while that’s valid, that also furthers the marginalization of queer and trans work. For me, what could be better than being in that space? That’s where people who will be changed by your work are going to find you. In bookstores, queer work doesn’t exist; if there’s one little section where we are, let’s all be there. [Laughs]
Rumpus: I want to go back to something we were talking about a little bit earlier: David Wojnarowicz and refusals of conventional narratives, something I know is an ongoing concern of yours. I’m really interested in the ways Sketchtasy refuses conventional addiction and recovery narratives, while also sincerely investigating Alexa’s drug use and her healing processes, including 12-step recovery.
Bernstein Sycamore: Drugs are so central to the book because there is nothing else. Community, in this book, is formed through drugs.
Rumpus: Maybe there’s a kind of liberation felt when you’re doing drugs with people?
Bernstein Sycamore: It can enable a certain kind of bond to be formed, in this case a bond against the outside world. These characters live at night and sleep during the day, that’s one thing. Already you’re separate. Two, a lot of characters in the book—some more and some less—can only really exist through drugs. That is what enables them to be queens… to be flamboyant and to transcend the shame and the trauma and the exclusion both from the larger world and from inside gay culture. I want to place addiction and recovery side by side so we can see the potentials and weaknesses of both. And I also don’t want to impose a hierarchy about which is better or worse, even if sometimes it may be obvious. [Laughs] But sometimes it may not. For me, it has to be on the terms of the characters in the book.
It was a surprise to me, writing it, that AA enters the narrative. What happened in the writing was that Alexa’s experience of finding a group of fags trying to take care of one another is a kind of shock; she has imagined this but not actually experienced it. Even in their flaws, even in the formulaic rigidity of the 12-step narrative, she senses something. I mean, if any group of people within queer culture have been more damaged, taught to hate, fear, despise, and only treat one another as objects when necessary for a kind of sexual gratification that never goes behind a kind of rudimentary hyper-consumption kind of feeling… it’s, you know, fags. And I wanted to both critique that and show the trauma of that.
Rumpus: I’ve heard you talk about how identity, queer identity or any kind of identity, can be a starting point but not an ending point. Maybe healing is like that? These different possible paths? When the book ends, we’re still in the mid-90s, we don’t know what happens to Alexa later—so many possible paths! Are you at all nostalgic for that time? Were you nostalgic when writing?
Bernstein Sycamore: For me, nostalgia always camouflages violence—it’s the violence of replacing the nuance and complication of lived experience with a whitewashed product safe for mainstream consumption. The opposite of nostalgia is truth. In writing this book, I was meticulous about making sure everything about time and place was exactly right. The voice in this book is formed within club culture, so formed by music, by the queen’s vernacular, by everyday experience. Getting the specificity right was about being able to feel it more. Nostalgia prevents us from feeling anything but a kind of predetermined wistfulness.
In a lot of ways Sktechtasy is about being trapped in that particular moment, not about that particular moment allowing for new ways of living and loving and taking care of one and other and escaping the stranglehold of the dominant culture. It’s about being stuck in Boston, in a city that will not allow for flamboyance and outsider world-making. And obviously that’s still relevant today, with the cities we’re living in being even more whitewashed and experiencing even more of a clamp-down on anything viable outside of mainstream consumerism. In that sense I think, well, anyone can read anything and feel nostalgia. If I were to think about my own life, there were definitely certain things that were possible in the ‘90s that may not be possible now, but we can’t get stuck there. In order to imagine possibilities now, we can’t always be looking back to the past and thinking, “Oh my god wasn’t it great then!” That creates a kind of cultural amnesia and also a deadening of our senses and our possibilities in the present.
Rumpus: So is it fair to say that you’re somewhat of an optimist?
Bernstein Sycamore: [Laughs]
Rumpus: I really just wanted to hear that laugh! I love your laugh so much I wanted to hear it again. [Both laughing.]
Bernstein Sycamore: Let me think about it for one second. I might have a one-liner. Okay, I’m gonna try: If optimism means believing in the possibility of a tomorrow that may never exist over a today that suffocates us, then maybe I am an optimist. [Laughs]
Photograph of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore by Jesse Mann.