As soon as Lacy M. Johnson agreed to this project, and we began to think about the ideal audience for it, I realized just how much we need more conversations—and publications—that focus on issues of feminism, motherhood, art, and culture in bold, irreverent, nuanced, anti-capitalist ways. We are so pleased and feel incredibly lucky that The Rumpus is one of those very rare spaces where craft talks can be spliced with theory, criticism, and subjective experience, and where artists can stretch forward to find meaning and discover new dimensions in dialogue with other artists.
I have an old Ms. magazine with Viva on the cover, and the interview about her life as a bohemian parent inside is so loose, so alive, so unstable and unstructured, in a way that is nearly impossible to find today. I want for more of this: for more connection and less rupture; for women to do less emotional labor and to experiment in public as much as possible. There is an expectation of writing mothers to be buttoned-up, just the right dose of rigid and flexible while also projecting subtle bliss. When you add the daily task of recovering from sexual, emotional, and physical violence to that puzzle there is no room to be wrong, to make mistakes, to not know. It is a kind of death.
As we approach Mother’s Day, a holiday I loathe for its smug and cartoonish optimism, I’m glad to share this conversation with Rumpus readers. Below, Lacy M. Johnson and I discuss our recently published books and our writing processes. We compare perspectives, strategies, and inspirations. And, we consider how to fit our writing selves together with our mothering selves, without sacrificing our art to our children.
Sophia Shalmiyev: Reading The Reckonings, I was struck with your ability to hold and mirror uncertainty, especially that of other hurt and scared women—also a cornerstone of parenting—and wondered who is doing that for you; where did you learn that, are you able to gift yourself ambiguity, and how does that play out within your writing practice in general?
Lacy M. Johnson: This is a good question, and one that I’m not sure that I fully know the answer to. I think I learned to, as you say, “hold and mirror uncertainty” because it is the kind of care I have always wanted but have rarely been offered. When I tell people about my own experience of trauma, for instance, some listen only because they are waiting for me to say that I am all better by the end, and when I don’t they are unsatisfied, frustrated, and some feel that I have led them astray. They want every story of trauma to end in triumph as some kind of reward for empathy, as if the price of giving your attention to the story of another is repaid through the satisfaction of arriving at a tidy conclusion by the story’s end. Real life is so much messier than this—I know mine is—and I am compelled to wallow in that messiness because I understand that tidiness isn’t for the person who lives in a story but for the people who arrive as its guests, who want to be made comfortable. I have no interest in making anyone comfortable, and I have learned to divest myself of the obligation to serve the comfort of others from my queer and radical feminist mothers and sisters and aunts, who did not appear in my biological family in any form, but to whom I have looked across the generations and distance that separate us in the writing and art they have left behind. This inheritance is there for us all.
In Mother Winter, I notice a rotating cast of these surrogate mothers who nurture you in ways your father and stepmother won’t or can’t, and who don’t necessarily stand in for the mother who is missing but who perhaps help you understand the shape and depth of the wound left by her loss. They offer strategies for survival, if not entirely for healing. You name many women artists who are important to your writing and thinking and fucking—Yoko Ono and Chris Kraus and Kathy Acker among them. None of us chooses what we inherit from our biological parents, but I wonder how you think about what you have chosen to inherit from these artist mothers, and what, as a literal and figurative mother, you are choosing to pass on?
Shalmiyev: That is so true about my mother being irreplaceable, and how we deal with not having a choice about our circumstances. I watched you unpack what you could not control and can re-stage, but never undo, in The Reckonings, as well, and later when I saw you speak on a book tour stop here in Portland, discussing your decision to do this miraculous and scary thing with your body—to run and run, even if it hurts at first, and trust that you can make it past that final push to a euphoria that offers you a welcome mat back to your own body, and your children’s bodies, as more than just yummy balls of needs and wants. I hope to offer that to my children and to my readers: the ecstasy of solitude and hard work blending with the need for a collective joy, our feminist life force. I am hungry for a tribe and so if I can offer that sense of belonging to someone with my writing, then I am meeting my own needs as well.
All my life, I wanted a cool woman to be my leader and mentor, but I also needed to rebel. I needed to tantrum and reject someone who would let me and then still be around after I was done being shitty. The women I summon in the book were either wrestling with how to stop pleasing people and with being a good girl, or, who had already been deemed too damaged to enter that kind of protective space in society and so burned it all to the ground. I have felt that pull a lot in my life and was very invested in having a chorus of every part of that struggle in the narrative. I want the reader to understand that I wish badly to be a vulnerable and patient person, while also feeling like I might break a chair over some guy’s head at any moment. It is a part of me that is a bit like my real mother and my stepmother: reactive and flooding at first, then reintegrating and making meaning and new logic. This legacy of abuse is our collective middle finger poking back in our own faces, just as it was meant to, gouging out our own eyes and making us cut ourselves, starve ourselves, blame ourselves, and give away hard work for free.
In The Reckonings, you mention Arendt’s and Foucault’s definitions of power, how they play out in groups and in dyads, respectively, and then you tell the reader that women have the power when prioritizing our relationships with each other and making a public offering of all we learn about our truths together. How has that worked for you—blending your public and private selves and creating meaningful bonds with other women in the literary world? Or, conversely, feeling challenged or like you do not belong? It is so hard to disagree with another woman and not have the world call it a cat fight.
Johnson: Do I have a public self that is separate from my private self? I’m not so certain about that. I’ve been told that I’m supposed to have different selves for different occasions—probably you’ve heard this, too—but I think I am only one self and there are parts that I choose to reveal and others that I choose to protect. The most meaningful bonds I’ve made with people in the literary world (and the world-world for that matter) have emerged out of being honest about who I am, want I want, the kind of future I want to move toward, how I want to be loved. I’m lucky that many of the writers I love happen to also be really swell, generous people, and so in my best writerly relationships I don’t feel any bitterness or competition or gossiping or any evidence of those misogynist myths about bonds between women that we all need to work collectively to destroy.
But, you also asked me about feeling like an outsider in the literary world. The truth is I feel like an outsider everywhere, even though I recognize that feeling is a story I’ve told myself (maybe even been taught to tell myself) about where I belong, which is nowhere. All communities are made by these stories: about who can and cannot belong. You write in Mother Winter about your outsider-ness in relationship to various ways of belonging to communities—ethnic, linguistic, religious, artistic. What is your relationship to these stories of community-making now? What modes of community-making feel healthy and good, and what communities have you been inside that you’ve wanted to escape?
Shalmiyev: This is a real conundrum for me as well; I belong nowhere because I struggle to belong in my female body as it has been treated—not as I treat it myself, not anymore. I partially overcame overt and visible self-harm on my twentieth birthday, making a pact with myself to understand why I am compelled to inflict pain in lieu of an obvious abuser on deck to beat or molest me, and made a promise that I am simply not allowed to ritualize the hurt. And yet, self-care and healthier habits didn’t come easy. I was in a punk rock community, where being invincible and nonchalant while also being political (as though being a grown-up meant you had to aspire to an Emma Goldman/Buckowski hybrid) was so confusing. Olympia was full of talented artists dying of heroin and alcoholism. Such chaos and brutality were always covered in a smoky haze of incoherent late-night talks that we deemed bonding experiences. Pebbles in the knees and blind-drunk one-night stands were part of the story of seeing a good punk show and willfully wasting your youth.
The thing I eventually realized was that the stakes are simply higher for me. I was poor and came from a different country, without a safety net. I had a history of violence and chemical dependency scratched in behind my eyeballs. I have never been a child. There was no mother to hug me and tell me that the blues run their course. I guess I am saying this to highlight how difficult it is to find progressive, non-competitive spaces as a traumatized woman. Olympia came close. Going to The Evergreen State College and feeling that women were empowered there, that they didn’t have to smile or nod along—I really needed that in an institution of higher education. But I should say that, even if it is a cliché, I didn’t understand what feeling left out was really like until I gave birth. Nothing prepared me for how isolating and humiliating and devastating to the body and mind the domestic life can truly be. The public sphere forced me to call in sick.
That brings me to the question I wanted to ask you right at the top, and please forgive me if I am being sexist in exploring motherhood when discussing our books. The Reckonings is filled with examples of activism and tackling conflict head-on; you implicate yourself with a searing self-awareness. We both have two children who are currently presenting as different genders. We both have a physical record of our stories, difficult for some adults to read or listen to without looking away. How do you envision your children having access to your work, what have you told them about your life-changing experiences so far, and have they been to any of your readings and events? I ask because I am trying to understand how to explain my familial history so that candor can be aligned with teachable, safe, secure moments for my children. I am trying to understand how to not raise an aggressive or lazy boy, and how to ensure my daughter won’t feel that her endless work in life is to vigilantly protect herself from harm or be the hall monitor of her sexuality…
Johnson: This is a really hard question. My daughter is twelve now, and knows what rape is, knows that it happens, and I think is beginning to understand that it’s about power and hatred and control more than it’s about anything else. This is partly the recent result of me having hard and pointed conversations with her around the time of the Kavanaugh hearings, but it’s just as much the result of having conversations all her life about the power and strength and autonomy of her body—conversations I think we don’t have with young girls nearly often enough. I’ve never told her how vulnerable or weak she is, or that she’s likely to be a victim someday if she doesn’t watch her back. Instead, I’ve told her how strong and capable she is and I’ve encouraged her to find ways to challenge herself physically, mentally, and personally. I teach the same thing to my son, and I tell them both that you can’t challenge yourself at the expense of someone else—that your power isn’t relative to another person’s weakness. That said, I have not admitted to them that I learned this lesson too late, and in ways that remain painful. I expect that they will one day read my work, or hear about it somewhere, and then we will have a hard and pointed conversation about that. I don’t spend a lot of time planning what I will say because the idea of it, as I said, remains painful.
It’s interesting that you ask this because I’ve noticed that mothers ask me this question more often than people who are not mothers. Is this a concern for you? How do you have conversations about yourself with your children now, and how do you imagine those conversations going forward?
Shalmiyev: That makes sense to me; you are building up your children’s coping skills, inner resources, and political awareness. You’re teaching them that bodies are political, as well as pleasurable and confusing, but also that we have agency and a need for boundaries. It is an approach that certainly works better than projecting your experience onto a child who may not know how to metabolize injustice and violence at such close range, and yet, I really am concerned with how to strike the balance between what I see as a critical mass moment for their bodies, our collective body mythologies, my children’s bubbles, my way of compartmentalizing, and my inner urge to repeat the more attractive side of my familial legacy, which is that they were all tireless and filter-less storytellers. It is something I fight against and sometimes lose my battle with—discretion, age-appropriate language, visible irritation, calm demeanor, awareness of who is within earshot when talking to adults with children present. I am calling myself out. I fail at this task of having the necessary boundaries sometimes. And, I have serious nostalgia for the frank way I was spoken to as a kid. I have to simulate an adult who knows what a childhood is. I tend to feel so much calm and euphoria from finding the middle ground, from just seeing them and holding the space.
My book launch is just a day away, and this has been on my mind in a tangible way because the kids have watched my every move with this book and they are dying to come to Powell’s and sit in the audience and hear me read and answer questions. I have been picking out passages that are not going to harm them, or are not about them, but it is nearly impossible. And something feels stolen. It feels like I cannot be both the writer and the mother, cannot please them and myself. Another loss. A bright moment made dark somehow. But I do want my children there because they are so proud of me, and hopefully this is an example of a single mother having a big, public moment of accomplishment. It is a gift I can give them. I had aimed to prod what I cannot seem to reconcile, what will feel off, even when I manage to come up with a good-enough plan as a person who worries about being delicate with my kids more than anything else. These are necessary losses, as Judith Viorst calls them. I want to give myself a hard time and say: welcome to adulthood. Though that doesn’t have traction if I have never been a kid, not really.
Please tell me more about your current project. I think you mentioned that you became inspired by a specific piece of visual art and maybe even mysticism (or did I make that up?) and you will have funded time to work on some portion of your next book. What is most pressing for you to write about right now, and what do you consider to be near-ideal writing conditions?
Johnson: My ideal writing conditions, especially for starting a new project, involve long stretches of uninterrupted time. I can revise under almost any conditions, but drafting from scratch is laborious and slow. I need multiple days in a row without meetings or email or long commutes; I also need an abundance of salty, crunchy snacks and something caffeinated to drink. This does not even remotely resemble my current circumstances, because in addition to my full-time job as a faculty member at a university, I am also founding director of the Houston Flood Museum, which launched this past August on the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. That is also a full-time job and consumes most of my time and attention these days. I am, for example, editing a collection of essays and reimagined maps about catastrophic flooding in Houston as we speak. This is good, urgent work operating at the intersection of climate justice, racial justice, and economic justice and I am happy to do it, but it leaves little time for my own writing because, remember, I am also mom to two children who are very different people with divergent needs, and a mentor to several dozen writers, who are also very different people with divergent needs.
It’s a lot. I fully admit I’m overcommitted. If I haven’t responded to an email or I’m late on a deadline, this is why. And, yes, there is a new project that grows out of my current work on the Flood Museum and my previous work in The Reckonings. I am not doing any writing toward it at the moment, though I fantasize about it every single day. Many of these current projects will move off my plate and into production mid- to late-April, which means that two months from now I’ll be able to start writing again, and I am counting down the days.
Tell me about your next project. What interests you lately? What feels most urgent to you? What work most satisfies your needs?
Shalmiyev: That makes so much sense. After AWP madness you can grow new skin and move into the spring of your projects in a tangible way. I once had a ballet teacher who talked about the power of having a vision and practicing it in your head. She explained that an injured ballerina, if she dances the routine in her mind diligently and intentionally, she will be able to simulate muscle memory via meditation and imagination. Chris Kraus talks about doing most of the work for a piece in her mind, going about her daily routines, and coming to the page ready. That’s reassuring; we need to be pythons and digest and rest.
I am working on my novel. It’s called I Married the Butcher to Get to the Bone. It is about the kind of interiority we do not always value or understand as valid narrative structure. A woman with children goes through a prolonged divorce, and is raising her children in a co-parenting arrangement where she wants some semblance of equality—she wants an end to the emotional labor that brought her low. She kind of drops out and stops being the “good” mom; she allows her kids to become the smelly children with birdnest hair who are always the last to be picked up and late to be dropped off. There is nothing sinister or dangerous in her; she has run out of nurture juice but not out of love for her kids. She starts spending the majority of her time on female friendships, obsessing over what she believes will be a catastrophic earthquake, and managing an onslaught of bodily changes and breakdowns. I want this character to end up finding her path to pleasure, away from guilt and the responsibilities she had previously convinced herself would help her blend, make her connect. I want to reveal and answer nothing aside from the fact that she doesn’t owe society more candy, more treats, more work, more agenda-filled days.
This character is my foil. I am so very overscheduled and hard on myself. I want to live out some portion of my writing practice in this vicarious state, this escape hatch of the lady who no longer gives a damn. Her kids will be okay. She still does more for them than majority of male parents who get medals for taking their brood out to breakfast so mom can sleep in. Claire Dederer recently asked me why I think we hate women who abandon their children even more than if they had murdered them. I still don’t have a final answer, but one part of my answer is that a useless woman is a dead to us woman. If she is a killer, which is rare, it activates the belief that women are natural-born psychopaths, just barely keeping it under wraps, so the spectator feels catharsis over the witch trial of an unhinged victim/aggressor blend. When a woman checks out of the whole game, whether willingly or due to mental illness and trauma or lack of resources or an abusive relationship, she is inhuman, a monster. Her body is ours to throw stones at; she is public property. Our “whys” are heavy with hatred and accusations, of problem-solving her into a soldier again. To this day we speak of Doris Lessing as a mother-leaver. Maybe that is fair game to some, but I think she felt so completely unable to exist in her environment and once her ex got an auxiliary, a stepmother, she resigned to being mother-outsider. Again, her concern for her children is more than that of most men who walk away from their families. Oh, but we romanticize those men instead, don’t we?
Photograph of Sophia Shalmiyev © Megan Freshly. Photograph of Lacy M. Johnson © John Carrithers.