Celebrating Queer Portland: A Conversation with Claire Rudy Foster

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When I was asked to interview Foster about their forthcoming short story collection, Shine of the Ever, I clapped my hands together and wiggled in my chair. We had not yet met, which is surprising because we both live and write in Portland, Oregon, and have lots of friends in common. I was excited to finally get the chance to meet them, and hear about their work.

Shine of the Ever is Foster’s second short story collection. Their first, I’ve Never Done This Before, addressed addiction with a similar polyvocality. But Shine of the Ever celebrates queerness. Following characters from across the gender spectrum, and the LGBTQ community, the collection reflects life in a punk-tinged Portland in the middle of its own reinvention. From a port city to a lumber town to its current, post-Portlandia iteration (replete with bird-tattooed hipsters), Portland is both a character and a kaleidoscopic backdrop for the many-splendored folx of Foster’s imagination. Smart, thoughtful, funny, and romantic, Foster’s Portlanders traipse, shimmy, and stomp their way through each other’s lives, sometimes knowingly and sometimes not. They arrive on corners at the same time, or share ex-girlfriends, or pass each other in the Farmers’ Market. The experience is much like living in Portland, where it’s sometimes impossible to avoid running into people you know. Or arriving at places at the exact same time.

So when Foster and I arrived on the corner simultaneously, almost exactly five minutes before our scheduled interview time, it felt like a sign. Within minutes we were chatting so comfortably that I forgot to start my recorder. Once I finally did, we talked for over an hour, about everything from the changes in Portland, to family histories and displacement, to astrology, to The Last Unicorn.

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The Rumpus: So tell me about your relationship with Portland. Because Portland really feels, to me, like the through character in Shine of the Ever.

Foster: It is. It is the unspoken character. It’s my Anna Karenina. I think just in the last couple of years I’ve really had to come to terms with the fact that I’m a Portland writer. Which is something…

Rumpus: It’s a thing.

Foster: It’s something I wasn’t super pumped about, frankly. I love Portland, but I wouldn’t say I’m part of the writing community here in the way that some others are. I have come to accept that Portland is, whether I like it or not, very much a part of who I am now and that it informs my art. But, yeah, I mean my history with Portland goes way back, as they say. My family came to Oregon in a covered wagon in 1842.

Rumpus: Really?

Foster: I still have pieces of the wagon in my apartment. My family member who came here was the second and unfavored son of a very wealthy British family that owned a massive plantation in the Carolinas and was one of the founders of a college town.

Rumpus: Wow.

Foster: Yeah. So this unfavored son, for whatever reason, left home after his education was completed and became a mercenary in the French and Indian war. The images of him that exist show a very severe and uncompromising, wild man. He was one of the people who came out here, finding work as a guide, kind of a trailblazer. He’d joined up with a wagon train in Georgia and took them out to Oregon in 1840–1841, and was one of the people who signed a document in Champoeg, Oregon saying we want Oregon to be part of the United States. He was one of the original gentrifiers, if you want to call him that. Or the original colonizers. My dad was in the military, so we bounced around. But I always kept ties to Portland. We were sent here in the summers. I’m very close with my grandmother, especially. And Portland has been my home full-time since 2002. So that’s sort of where the book begins. I know we said in the description that it’s 90s era. But, to me, the 90s has been about twenty years in Portland.

Rumpus: Well, the dream of the 90s is still alive here, or it was.

Foster: I’ve been on that show.

Rumpus: I’m sure you have. I think if you’ve lived here long enough…

Foster: It’s part of the rules. If you’ve lived here long enough you have to be on Portlandia. And you know where the good donuts are.

Rumpus: What you just said about returning to Portland again and again? I feel like the characters in your stories all come to Portland a little differently. It’s almost like you captured that sense of coming back to Portland over and over with different eyes and some different perspectives.

Foster: Well, that’s kind of the joke, right? It’s rare to meet somebody who was born here, grew up here, and stayed here.

Rumpus: So you go by Foster and your book is published under Claire Rudy Foster?

Foster:
Correct.

Rumpus: And when people are like, “What do I call you? How do we refer to you?”

Foster: I politely say “I go by my last name.” Kind of WASP-y, I guess.

Rumpus: I like it.

Foster: If I had been any earlier in my quote-unquote “career” prior to this, I think I probably just would have changed it entirely. But at this point I’ve written so many places. I mean, I think… one year I published over two hundred articles and, like, two books, you know? As far as bylines go it’s a lot to clean up. It’s just not worth it. Also, I like the word “Foster.” I think it suits me. It’s a verb. It means “to take care of something.”

Rumpus: It’s lovely.

Foster: Thank you. And you know, I’m a little envious of my friends who get to recreate themselves prior to becoming a public figure. But I didn’t have that. So I just I am what I am. There have been a lot of consequences to me coming out as trans and then sticking to my guns. It’s been very, very hard. And it’s been hard for them, too, I think. And I’ve been very lucky to find acceptance elsewhere, you know? To have a family of choice. To not feel like I’m totally unwanted.

Rumpus: Families of choice show up a lot in Shine of the Ever.

Foster: They do. That was a really important theme. I mean, the stories in the book were written, I think, beginning in 2005. This was a long spread. These are not all new pieces. Some of them have been published before. “Pas de Deux” was published in 2006, I think, and was nominated for a Best of the Web award at Toasted Cheese. “Venus Conjunct Saturn” was published in another anthology and was nominated for a Pushcart. These stories have been around a little bit, some of them. The title piece started out as my senior thesis.

Rumpus: In undergrad?

Foster: Yes.

Rumpus: That is a long time.

Foster: It’s been thirteen years. So it took time for these pieces to kind of come together. But I think that that process parallels my own growing self-awareness. You know I know I’ve been queer forever. I mean, I’ve been out as queer forever. But the trans thing is new.

Rumpus: So your parents were fine with queerness, they just freaked out—

Foster: They ignored it.

Rumpus: Oh, they ignored the queerness?

Foster: “You can do whatever you want. Just keep it to yourself.”

Rumpus: I see.

Foster: And they hurt me. But the collection I think really came out of that desire to feel held. To walk through this place knowing that you’re not alone. You’ve probably had this experience, but when you’ve lived in Portland long enough, you will not be able to go anywhere without seeing somebody you know.

Rumpus: Yep.

Foster: No matter how big Portland gets I’ve noticed that it is still a small town in that way and I really wanted to reflect that in the collection. Like, deliberately linking the characters, their coworkers who don’t know each other, or the mailman, or the ultimate lesbian. That working thing which is that “I’ve slept with your ex,” but neither of us really met her. You know? Just all that stuff. The sharing of exes. “Our” girlfriend. You know, that kind of thing?

Rumpus: Oh, I had a question about that. Oh! Because when we showed up at the corner at the same time, that’s why I was like, “This is like your book. This is a thing. This would happen in your book.” It felt like a scene.

Foster: It is a scene. It could be a scene.

Rumpus: Well, I’ll look for it in your next collection. Okay, so I was wondering about some of the witchy, Tarot, horoscope-y stuff that’s in Shine of the Ever, and its relationship to queerness. How do you feel like those two things bump up against each other?

Foster: First of all, astrology is gay.

Rumpus: Tell me more.

Foster: It is. You know, when we were talking about Friday the 13th, and femme power being subverted by the patriarchy, I noticed that in queer culture, whether it’s tongue-in-cheek, or campy or whatever, there is a real desire to have the power and comfort that faith provides without religious structure, which can be extremely oppressive for queer people. God is a recurring theme in the book, as well as spirituality. And to me, astrology, tarot, Paganism, ritual, is queered spirituality. It is a place outside of the church where we can still find our power and belong. It’s the alternative to God, God the father, out there. God the rule-maker. But it’s also, I mean, you know that a girl is flirting with you when she asks if you can link up on Co-Star.

Rumpus: I don’t even know what that is.

Foster: Are you a heterosexual?

Rumpus: No!

Foster: Do you know what your rising sign is?

Rumpus: Mm-hmm

Foster: Yeah, gay. But that’s the joke. Because like in Portland, if you know your sun sign, your moon sign, and your rising sign, you’re probably queer.

Rumpus: Yeah. Aquarius. In case you were wondering. I wondered, too, when you were talking about astrology and witchiness and this whole alternative… I grew up in northern California, and my mom was very New Age, and so, therefore, I rejected these things for a very long time. I was like, “It’s like the shit my mom does and I don’t want anything to do with it.”

Foster: That’s fair.

Rumpus: But then I met some people that were not like my mom that I loved that told me, “No, magic is like you can proclaim whatever you want to be a spell. Like you can say what things are, and they just are.” And I was like, oh! You don’t need to get power from someone else. It can be your own.

Foster: One of the things I like about it is that it’s inherently anti-hierarchical.

Rumpus: Yes! That.

Foster: I mean, you can sign up for a class, and you can have your astrologer who you like, or I think we can learn from each other. But there is the concept of power-over, power-under is not really part of that system. For me, astrology is shorthand for that freedom within the self. And from a queer perspective, I think it’s really empowering to say like “yes, my life is magic. Yes, I am full of power. My life is an incantation. The words that I speak have meaning because they will change everybody that they touch.” That is powerful. I don’t need permission to speak.

Rumpus: Right, which is huge. And the other thing that I’m thinking about with queerness and witchy spirituality is it all predates this other shit layer that we’ve all kind of grown up with as the tradition.

Foster: This old thing?

Rumpus: Yeah, ye olde shit layer. You know, that one?

Foster: I love it.

Rumpus: I’m so eloquent. There are so many scientists in your book. Are you a science person?

Foster: Sort of. My mother was a park ranger for twenty-five years and I was raised pulling invasive weeds in fields. That’s how we did things. Conservation, it’s a really, really important value in my family. Her father is a professor of marine biology who raised me tide pooling on the California coast. So it’s just always been the way that I see things. I also think that the taxonomies that we use are a spell of their own. I think there’s an idea that’s prevalent in multiple spiritual paths where if you know something’s true name…

Rumpus: The naming, mm-hmm.

Foster: …you can call it by it’s name and it will answer you. So I see that in science, where people can isolate those things, particle or this organism, and name it and see it, then we will own it.

Rumpus: So my question is: all those things exist without their names, though. Like there were atoms and quarks happening before anyone was around to name it, so what is the magic of naming? Does it give us a false sense of understanding about a thing that we don’t actually understand?

Foster: It does. And I think, for myself, the naming process, and the identifying process, is empowering, and also limiting. I think it’s very tempting to say, “I am this thing, and I will be this thing tomorrow.” But my identity does not exist within language, and that’s okay. I was explaining that if someone calls me a “she” I don’t particularly like it, but it’s not about me. I think that someone else’s perception and the language that they use says a lot more about themselves than about me.

Rumpus: Well, it’s indicative of what they see.

Foster: It is what they see. Are you familiar with The Last Unicorn?

Rumpus: Yes.

Foster: Okay. So there’s this scene where the unicorn has been captured by the witch, remember? Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival. And the unicorn has been kept in a magic cage.

Rumpus: Isn’t Mia Farrow the unicorn?

Foster: Yes. Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges. And Mommy Fortuna, who might be played by Angela Lansbury now that I think of it. [Interviewer’s note: she is.] What a cast! The unicorn is confused because she sees her reflection in the bars on the cage and there’s a second iron horn. The witch cast a spell on her and a second horn grew from the unicorn’s forehead. And the witch says, “Nobody knows what you are. I had to give them a horn they could see, because nobody knows what you are.”

Rumpus: Oh, right, because people can’t see the unicorn.

Foster: Unless you’re like, an untouched virgin, and where were those in the Middle Ages?

Rumpus: Nowhere. Of course.

Foster: The unicorn radar was suppressed through the patriarchy.

Rumpus: The patriarchy ruined unicorn radar!

Foster: Thank you. The patriarchy took the unicorns from you.

Rumpus: I’m so mad! And it also makes me think about how much my daughter loves unicorns, and that makes me sad.

Foster: They’re amazing. Unicorns can do anything. I feel like until I started flagging my identify and being really upfront about like, “Yes, I’m a queer, nonbinary, trans writer,” until I started adapting those labels, I didn’t feel seen. Which is silly, because my identity existed…

Rumpus: Because you were there the whole time. Like quarks.

Foster: Yes, but I became real when I had a name for it. You know? And I see other people doing that work and really putting it out there, and I have so much admiration for them, to claim that thing. Even if it’s, you know, imperfect and incomplete, it’s something. And it was really important to me to write a book that had no sad endings. I’m so tired of queer and trans and femme and female people being used as victims over and over again.

Rumpus: Can you talk to me a little bit about celebrities? Like I could give you a hypothesis about why astrology is in your book. But celebrity is a thread in here. It’s an interesting thread that felt unexpected.

Foster: I think the Pacific Northwest, especially, and grunge culture, and punk, and all of that stuff has been very anti-celebrity. Where it’s considered uncool to want to be famous. But for a really long time it’s like if you became notorious, or known, you were a sellout.

Rumpus: Yeah.

Foster: From my perspective, you know the clown in my last story says, “I would like to be famous, because I’d want to know if I’d like it or not.” And there’s a desire to be seen. I want to be seen. I want people to listen to me. And I think everybody feels that way. I think the minute you set up a Twitter account, or a Facebook account, you are sharing with the world that you want to be listened to, and that you have something worth saying. And I’m very okay with that impulse in this book. Celebrity means to be celebrated, and who doesn’t want to be celebrated?

Rumpus: I love that.

Foster: In relation to being trans, one of the things that I have learned since I came out is that people want to look. They want to stare. They want to listen. They’re curious. And I don’t think I want to be famous for being trans. I would love to be famous for being a wonderful writer.

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Photograph of Foster by Kaitlyn Luckow.


Marissa Korbel's writing has appeared in many publications, including Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, Bitch, and The Manifest-Station. She works as a public interest attorney supporting campus and minor sexual assault survivors. Marissa lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler. More from this author →