Art Is Everything: Talking with Alex DiFrancesco

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I first became aware of Alex DiFrancesco soon after I graduated college and joined the ranks of freelancers trying to make a sort-of living as essayists, journalists, and critics. DiFrancesco was a vocal and active member of several professional writer groups I was part of, and it quickly became clear to me that they were a person who lived their values, didn’t sugarcoat issues of systemic oppression, and still deeply believed in art. I looked up to them, partially because they could stand up for themselves when necessary—something I am very bad at—but also because I could tell that they hustled and believed in the power of words in a way that broke through the cynicism they could have succumbed to from needing to work as hard as they did, as they do. They refused to be silenced by a world that didn’t, and still doesn’t, want to hear what a transmasculine genderqueer person has to say about things like inclusivity, equality, justice, and art.

In their new novel, All City, DiFrancesco—who also had their debut essay collection, Psychopomps, published this year—plumbs the depths of a frightening reality that is far too close for comfort, and that, in fact, has already come to pass. While the book could be categorized as dystopian, literary, or speculative fiction, I think of it as belonging more to that emerging genre dubbed cli-fi. Such literature uses as its impetus the projections of what climate change will do, and is already doing, to the earth. All City certainly does that. Taking place in a near-future New York City that is hit by a superstorm reminiscent of Hurricanes Katrina and Maria, the novel deals with the realities of those who can or cannot escape the city, the inequalities deepened by climate-related disaster, and the ways survivors of such events react to it, for better and for worse.

Among other things, All City is about making art in the face of hardship, and suggests that even though the creation of art can be a solitary endeavor, it is often bolstered by varying forms of community support. Recently, DiFrancesco and I spoke about the process of creating the novel, the life-saving power of art, and how to write about systems of injustice and inequality.

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The Rumpus: Can you tell me about the realities of writing this book from a concrete, real-life, practical standpoint?

Alex DiFrancesco: I’m one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in debt that I’ll never pay back from obtaining writing degrees. Nothing I’ve ever written has made a slight dent in that. I don’t have the temerity to fight the government as hard as they want to be fought for food stamps or health insurance, so there are large spans of time when I eat poverty food and beg for donations when I don’t have even that. My medical debt is growing. I’m likely to lose my car soon because I can’t afford repairs and loan repayment. I took a job where I worked fifty to sixty hours, four days a week, so I’d have uninterrupted time on the weekends to write drafts of this novel.

Instead of writing this book in an MFA program—which I eventually went back to because you can’t teach writing without that piece of paper—I joined a writers’ group that met every week and took our own and each other’s work very seriously. Some great books have come out of that group, like The Family Gene by Joselin Linder, and When You Read This by Mary Adkins.

I don’t have a family, I’m not in a romantic relationship, and the time I spend with friends is limited, because you can rarely have a full-time day job, school, and a full-time job as an artist and have those things, too. I hate to romanticize the whole “dying to be an artist” trope, but I haven’t had dental work in years, my health is suffering from poverty food, and the hustle of getting my work out in the world and getting paid enough to live on is, in very real ways, killing me a little all the time.

That said, I’ve traveled all over and been in the homes of loving, caring artist friends because of this book—shout out to Melissa Duclos, Sawyer Lovett, Matthrew Blumenkrantz, all who’ve put me up for events I’ve done around All City. I am living my life in the only way I know possible, despite all the real things I’ve sacrificed to do this work. I think we don’t talk about this, but we have to. I’ve believed most of my life that art is an equalizer, but that’s just not true. Like anything else, there are people born near the finish line, and there are those of us who fight our way to the starting point and begin the race exhausted. I want to be real that my minor accomplishments are a result of the latter. But I’m incredibly grateful because no one does even that alone, and if it weren’t for scholarships, mentors, advice, and folks who throw me twenty bucks when my pantry empties out, I wouldn’t have done anything at all.

Rumpus: All City is about climate change, class, queerness, art, but it also has a very clear plot that leads readers through all these themes. Did you know the novel was going to be about all these things? Did anything surprise you along the way?

DiFrancesco: I had a very clear idea of a lot of the plot and the themes you mentioned right away. The art section came as a bit of a surprise to me in pre-writing. I was making a list of what-ifs, and the dystopia and climate change and class struggles were all there. Then towards the bottom of the list, the art came in. Two things were happening at that moment in NYC that brought street art to the forefront for me: Banksy’s NYC “residency” and the destruction of the 5 Pointz building in Queens which had housed a wealth of gorgeous street art and murals, and was whitewashed and demolished to make way for a condo building. I ended up thinking about art and gentrification, how the two are intertwined, and how street art is this taking and making of public space out of something that may not have been such before. So the idea for the artist in the book came out of all those things.

Rumpus: What research did you do in terms of what would happen to New York City in the face of a superstorm?

DiFrancesco: Most of my research was of real-life disasters that created dystopian conditions in the modern day. I started reading about Hurricane Katrina—the Superdome reports, the book Five Days at Memorial by Sherri Fink—and saw that the climate change dystopia had been here for a while. Superstorm Sandy was a huge inspiration, as well. It occurred right after the dissolution of Occupy Wall Street, so many systems were still in place to switch over to aiding the areas that had been destroyed in the storm. I plugged into that right away, helping funnel donations and volunteers from Astoria, where I lived, which was barely touched, to Rockaway Beach, which, by all accounts I received, was devastated. But, you know, the dystopia had hit NYC a while back, and it was just easy to ignore for a lot of people who didn’t live at the edges of the city or have much interaction with the people in Staten Island. So those two storms and my personal interactions during them, or research on them, very greatly shaped this book.

As for the governmental reaction, that was straight out of the Katrina research. The government was slow to ineffectual in their response to that disaster, and I wanted to make it that way in this book, as well.

Rumpus: All City is about people, about Jesse, Makayla, and Evann—the three PoV characters—and the folks in their lives. But it’s also about systems that keep people like Evann afloat, that make people like Jesse live in an abandoned elevated railway station, that make people like Makayla go from fierce to desperate. How did you approach writing about the systems you uncover and discuss in this book?

DiFrancesco: I feel like my undergrad study at New School really put these systems at the forefront in my head. I realize that’s not the experience for everyone at these liberal arts private schools, but I came in fairly radical, from a different class background than many students there, took classes with world-traveling observers of systems and humanity like Siddhartha Deb, or a class with James Hannaham where we wrote for an entire semester about extreme wealth and extreme poverty. These things greatly shaped how I viewed the world, how I looked at systems of inequality and injustice. And I’ve never been able to write since without these systems rising up, even in little ways, even when the story has nothing to do with them, or when they’re just supposed to be in the background.

I’d say my own position as an outsider to many of these systems also means that I can’t look away from them like many people can. I’m trans and I’m living at the poverty line; I’m really on the wrong side of a lot of the systems that run the world. So they become a bit of an obsession, something you look at and see the strangeness of as someone who’s maybe a little more removed from. Writing the characters of Jesse, Jose, and Sebastian, in particular, who are very vocal about all these things and discuss them frequently, was a lot of fun.

Rumpus: Early in the book, there’s a scene that changes everything for Makayla. While All City is about community-building in many ways, how did you approach its opposite, the awful ways some humans treat other humans in the wake of a tragedy?

DiFrancesco: That scene you’re talking about—Makayla’s rape by a man who has agreed to help her in the wake of the disaster—was so tricky. Because I wanted to show these realities, that the world is not all community-building, and that some people are out there strictly to take advantage and create horror in the lives of others. And that’s the kind of thing that can define or destroy someone’s life. So the hard work was how to include the traumas many of us face, but not make them the thing that defines someone. As in, you know, this character isn’t defined by her rape, her rape is a plot point. It motivates much of her character, as does her PTSD from it. But Makayla is so much more than that. Makayla is angry, and loving, and smart, and a survivor.

Someone in a writers’ group once said that many of my pieces have rape and assault and trauma in them. This is a reality for pretty much everyone I know. When people say they don’t want this sort of thing in writing they read or represent or publish, I wonder what it is that makes them look away from it—their own trauma, or their own privilege, the ability to be able to pretend that most of the people around them aren’t walking around with these wounds? It’s like when people say they don’t care for politics in art and entertainment—what allows you to separate them? What allows you to think that every move we make in our lives isn’t an extension of the political that surrounds our identities every day?

Rumpus: Let’s talk about Evann, who, I have to confess, I thought was a dude for the longest time, up to the last chapter I think. But more to the point, Evann is a difficult character to read. Her privilege is so loud, and she’s extremely lacking in self-awareness. And yet there are moments of true loneliness, sadness, and love of art that feel genuine. Was it hard to write her? Was it fun? And what was her purpose for you, as a PoV character?

DiFrancesco: Ohhhh, Evann. First off, you are not the only person to think Evann was a dude. I think you’re the fourth or fifth person who’s told me that. I think that speaks, somewhat, to me stripping characters of a lot of gendered or physical detail. Evann’s written in first-person, and it just reeks of awkwardness to me to say something like, “I brushed my long blonde hair,” or something that might hint more at what she looks like. So much of her description comes in that last, third-person segment.

I wrote Evann’s character more times than any other character in this book. She started out one-dimensional and utterly horrible. She still ended up utterly horrible but with a bit more sympathy, I think, than I gave her for a while. But I did want to make her be human. I wanted her to love and have feelings, even if they were shallow and limited. I wanted her to feel loss, and ultimately I wanted her consumption to be rooted in an emptiness she couldn’t even begin to understand or describe, but that I could understand. And I gave her a really cute dog in the last draft, because I wanted to show her loving something in real-time. And reader, the dog does not die.

Evann was fun because I was constantly making fun of her, then finding ways to take it seriously. She started as a joke, as a love for Ayn Rand and Basquiat. Then I decided to really dive into that beyond the superficial and figure out what kind of person could be that oblivious to class and wealth disparity. One of my favorite moments of writing her character was when I tried to make her listen to the sort of music I love, experimental, weird shit, because she knew she should like it, but she just gets frustrated and starts yelling at her dad instead, because she can’t understand it.

All that said, it seemed imperative to show both sides of the wealth divide. I knew I had to write someone on the “right” side of it. I didn’t know how hard it would be, and how many drafts it would take, and how she would be the character that took me the most effort to make real.

Rumpus: One of my favorite dynamics in the book is the tension between the graffiti of fruit that begins popping up around the city, the artist who creates it, and Evann, an art collector whose financial privilege allows her to watch the devastation of her beloved city from afar. How and why did you want to play with this dynamic?

DiFrancesco: Art is everything to me. I have extremely silly and virtually spiritual beliefs about its transformative power. I think it’s the only true way we can speak to each other about what’s inside of each other. I think it saves lives. I think it’s a calling and comes from somewhere totally divine.

I also think that the art world is the worst. It takes something pure and makes it into a commodity, something to be hoarded, puts people on the top or on the bottom, often with very little respect to talent or beauty or passion or labor. Evann, as a collector, is kind of the worst, too. There’s this one moment when she talks about how she loves art but hates hanging out with artists who haven’t made it because they’re so poor and it’s embarrassing for everyone when they can’t afford drugs and fancy dinners.

There’s another section in the book, totally unrelated, when Jesse talks about what their friend Lux said about coming out as trans—how something can be beautiful and perfect in your head, and then the world shits it up the moment it gets involved. I mean, that’s kind of art to me in many ways. I love the act of creating it, I love how it can speak so much to so many, but I hate how it exists as a business and a commodity.

Rumpus: Community-building is a huge part of this book. There are communities that already exist and are intact, like Jesse’s posse, and communities that are built, like the Brooklyn apartment building. What were you trying to show, to make readers see, in this community building process?

DiFrancesco: I started writing this book at a time when community was on my mind a lot. I was watching it try to be intentionally built during the Occupy Wall Street days in NYC. Many people I have known and continue to know, who are activists and queer folks, have tried building intentional community in many ways—collective houses, organizing collectives, community based on arts. As a trans person without a blood family, community is vital to survival for me. And being a member of a community means so much—work and support and care and sometimes making hard decisions. But also joy, incredible joy, and kindness, and love. And in the end, those are why we do it, and how we build a world that might help us survive in the long run.

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Photograph of Alex DiFrancesco by Emily Raw.


Ilana Masad is a queer Israeli-American fiction writer, book critic, essayist, and founder and host of The Other Stories podcast. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review, Washington Post, LA Times, NPR, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney's, Joyland, and more. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and her debut novel, All My Mother's Lovers, is coming out with Dutton in summer 2020. More from this author →