I’ve encountered Joy Ladin’s work in many contexts, but no context was more rewarding for me than when I taught the inaugural graduate hybrid forms seminar at Florida International University in 2019 and brought Family Resemblance, an anthology of selections from recently published hybrid literary works, to share with my students. There, many for the first time, my students alighted on selections from The Book of Anna—a second edition of which was published in March by EOAGH Books, with a new afterword from the author—and on Ladin’s moving and perceptive author statement.
I had a hunch, one which this interview has since confirmed, that Joy would be a fascinating person with whom to correspond. I feel grateful that we were able to converse so openly in the discussion that follows—about Joy’s genre-bridging work, her gender-bridging life, and about her deep pedagogical and spiritual commitments.
The Rumpus: It always feels fitting to me to begin with joy, but here especially: What are the most profound sources of joy in your life, Joy Ladin? In what ways has joy helped to illuminate your vocation as a scholar, a creative writer, a professor, and an activist?
Joy Ladin: I was given the name “Joy” by a fellow poet, Annie Kantar, one of the amazing women who helped me through gender transition. While I was still living as a man, I tried out several female names that were all clearly wrong for me. (I wasn’t surprised they were wrong— I’m not even good at titling poems.) I was on the phone with Annie, and she said she couldn’t keep calling me the latest of those stupid names. I asked if she had a better name in mind, and she said “Joy.” I laughed out loud at the idea—it seemed like a bad joke to be as miserable as I was then and introduce myself as “Joy.” Annie explained that to her, “Joy” was not naming what I was, but who I was becoming, and I realized that this name could be a mission statement: I was going through gender transition in order to feel joy, after a lifetime of dissociation and depression, and, though it was hard to imagine at the time, to become a source of joy to others.
To take on that mission, I have had to learn what joy means.
In American culture, we often use “joy” as a synonym for “happiness,” for the delight in life that comes and goes with moment and mood and circumstance. But in Jewish religious tradition, particularly Hasidism, a form of populist mysticism developed in the midst of devastating oppression and poverty, “joy” does not refer to a transient feeling. Joy is a spiritual practice, a state anyone can achieve at any time, regardless of their means, education, resources, prospects, health or situation. Joy arises as a spiritual and psychological response to the realization that we live in relation to creation and our Creator, and so our lives have meaning and purpose independent of how society defines people like us. Joy is an expression of that awareness, and of our engagement with our ethical and moral and spiritual obligations to those around us, and to the world that holds us in a sacred web of relationships. To feel ourselves part of an incomprehensible whole: that is joy.
Like most people, I move in and out of this state, but I achieve it most often when I am teaching or giving a reading or really listening to others, and also, oddly enough, when I am writing poetry: even though poetry is a singularly solitary activity, since I began writing it as a young child, poetry has always made me feel connected to… well, everyone. Writing returns me to that young-child feeling, that the world is watching and listening and welcoming what emerges through me.
Rumpus: The first edition of The Book of Anna was published in 2007. What was it like for you to return to this project after your gender transition and more than a decade after its initial public debut? How do your revisions and expansions to the original text reflect who you are now—as writer and human being?
Ladin: When Trace Peterson, founder and publisher of EOAGH, approached me a few years ago about doing a second edition of The Book of Anna, I was overjoyed. The first edition received little attention, and I had just been told by the press, Sheep Meadow, that it was going out of print. I’m so grateful that EOAGH has given it a second life, and a luminous new design.
I knew that meant rereading and reconsidering the text. I wondered how it would look to me, after more than a decade of living the life which, when I wrote Anna, I believed I would never live. I often significantly revise old poems before republishing them. I always think I can improve them by changing them to reflect my current poetic operating system. And, like Auden, when I revisit my older work, I tend to judge it harshly in terms of meaning as well as poetics; there are always lines and images that don’t mean enough, or that mean things I know I don’t believe, or that imply a worldview, a vision of existence, to which I no longer subscribe. But to my surprise, despite how different I was from the person and poet who wrote Anna, I didn’t want to make many changes to the original text. I tightened, clarified, and made the punctuation and lineation more reader-friendly, but I felt no desire to wrestle with the meaning or values of the text.
The book was never self-expression: it belongs to Anna. For five years, she used me to write herself into being. Chafing against my limitations as a person and as a poet, she insisted that I tell stories I didn’t know how to tell, reckon with sufferings I couldn’t imagine, say things I didn’t want to say, and use language in ways which, to this day, I don’t fully understand. But though Anna changed me, she had no intention of being changed by me; after the book was finished, my poetics, my values, and my life, became irrelevant to her, and to it. And so, instead of leading me to see the book in a new light, my editing process did the opposite: it prompted me to look at myself in new ways, a process of personal re-vision I describe in the afterword. Writing Anna was simultaneously the end of my life as a male persona, and the beginning of becoming the person I know myself to be. I felt driven to compare both versions of myself to Anna, and as I did so, I learned a lot about how she and I grew out of one another, the many differences between us, and the few but important things we have in common. I asked myself how and why my relation to Jewish tradition, humanity and God are like and unlike Anna’s—and why, unlike Anna, I haven’t given up on any of them, no matter how often they break my heart. I asked myself what I could still learn from Anna’s example as a poet, whether I could strive for comparable honesty, breadth of vision, fierceness, realism, courage, complexity and clarity, without embracing her nihilism and despair.
Those questions led me to embark on [my book-length poem sequence] Shekhinah Speaks, which, like The Book of Anna, gives voice to someone who is immeasurably smarter, stronger, and more accomplished than I am. Like Anna, the Shekhinah is unflinchingly familiar with the most hellish aspects of human existence, and, like Anna, she refuses to hold back, to accommodate, to pretend to be less or other than she is. But Anna writes out of anguished isolation, a sense that every aspect of humanity, every system of meaning and social organization, have failed. The Shekhinah speaks because she wants us to know that whatever we are or aren’t, we are never alone.
Rumpus: I had the pleasure of hearing you read from Shekhinah Speaks last summer at our virtual salon hosted by The Betsy Hotel. I remember being struck by the powerful juxtapositions I heard between the high/spiritual diction of sacred texts and the popular/secular diction of women’s magazines. I loved the surprising moments of illumination that arose from mixing discourses that way, and I even made a note in my reading/listening notebook: Joy refuses the idea of refuse. I felt you were drawing from every text in your purview, devaluing nothing, dismissing nothing. Above, where you write, “I haven’t given up on any of them, no matter how often they break my heart” echoes so poignantly here.
How do you do this, Joy? Not just in your writing, but as part of your sustained life-practice of joy? I’m asking for our readers but also for myself. My instinct has always been to turn—indeed to flee—from the conservative Christianity with which I was raised because of the homophobia I encountered there. I’d like to be braver, more forgiving, more something, as I reckon with that past, but I’m not sure how. How do you navigate/confront/diffuse (what would be the right verb?) transphobia within literary and academic communities to which you belong? How do you keep your faith despite exclusions/rejections/erasures (what would be the right noun)? What role does teaching play in the faith-keeping, joy-centered work you do?
Ladin: When I first read this, I was so overwhelmed by your generosity (and so taken with the phrase “Joy refuses the idea of refuse,” which I want to put on Post-it notes around my apartment so I remember to try to live up to it) that I couldn’t think about the crucial questions you ask—questions I hadn’t considered until you articulated them.
In terms of how I respond to transphobia in the academic and literary worlds, I, like most trans and nonbinary people, and others who identify with stigmatized groups, have had to practice all three of the survival skills you mention.
Because of temperament, upbringing, luck, and privilege, I usually avoid confrontation in favor of navigation (maneuvering around and trying to avoid triggering transphobic biases and reactions), and diffusion, which to me means framing trans and non-binary identities not as distinctively “queer” but as responses to shared imperatives of being human. As a teacher, I’ve learned that it’s easier to foster understanding by reminding students of the strengths and experiences they already have. By focusing on the common denominators between trans and non-trans identities and lives, I try to defuse (as well as diffuse) anxiety and foster curiosity, and frame learning about trans and non-binary approaches to identity and gender into a way of expanding our shared understanding of what human beings are, and can be.
I suspect that I would have been a conflict-avoidant person even if I weren’t trans, but my natural inclinations were magnified by decades of living in a binary gender world that seemed to have no place for people like me. I grew up believing that I had to hide my trans identity both for practical reasons (to avoid being shunned, shamed, attacked, discriminated against, and exiled) and for moral ones. Nothing and no one in my life encouraged me to be true to who I was; in fact, everyone and everything taught me the opposite, taught me that owed it to those I loved to be the boy and man I was believed to be. I still carry those traumatizing beliefs inside me, and have to work through them every day.
This is where luck comes in. To the extent that I’ve been able to avoid confronting transphobia, it’s because I live in a world transformed by generations of activists who put their bodies and lives on the line to change it. Their courage, strength, and sacrifice has made it possible for me to be an openly trans writer and academic without constantly being at war with the world around me. Not that I’ve escaped transphobia, or strain of dealing with institutions that take binary gender as their default operating system. But compared to anyone who came out before me, I’ve had it easy.
But timing is only part of the story. My vulnerability as a trans person has always been offset by the armor of unearned privilege. I’m white, educated, grew up middle-class in a house that my family could only afford because it was in a redlined neighborhood which, in a post-World War II America where anti-Semitism was relatively out of fashion, had been opened up to Jews. I’m also physically small enough to fit binary norms for women, norms that simultaneously help me avoid triggering transphobic violence and harassment and heighten those risks for many of my trans sisters. And because I came out after getting tenure (which was also a product of luck and privilege) and in a place where people like me are legally protected against discrimination, I was able to keep my job. That gave me the material support and social status I needed to survive and recover from a gender transition process that entailed the loss of home, family, friendships, and so on. All these forms of privilege, fruits of my participation in oppressive hierarchies that value some people and devalue others, have protected me, cushioning the blows that have fallen, and making it easier to navigate or diffuse rather than confront transphobia.
I always tell my writing students that we have to realize that our strengths are also our weaknesses and our weaknesses are also our strengths. That’s true in terms of my responses to anti-trans bias as well. The privileges that enable me to navigate around or diffuse transphobia have made it hard for me to recognize systems of oppression, both those I benefit from and those which hurt me, and have drastically slowed my development of the resilience, determination, and deep wellsprings of heroism and hope that those whose stigmatized differences are harder to hide have to develop in order to survive. My privileges have also diluted my sense of solidarity with others, making it hard for me to see how my struggles are connected to theirs, to see that no matter what benefits I reap from systems of oppression, my life depends on the collective work of promoting justice and liberation.
But particularly when it comes to teaching, I’ve also found that my weaknesses, such as my debilitating feeling that I am absolutely different from everyone else, can be strengths. I started teaching while doing my MFA, and as soon as I began—literally, during the very first class, which was, ironically, “Man and Woman in Literature”—I fell in love with it. Teaching gave me a way of connecting to others intellectually and spiritually, that hiding behind my male persona otherwise made impossible; during the best discussions, it felt like I’d left sex and gender behind.
My lifelong sense of being different not only fueled my love of teaching; it also prepared me for it. Teaching can feel very isolating: to be seen as a teacher is to be seen as categorically different from your students. But rather than marginalizing me, as I felt my trans difference did, the difference of being a teacher empowered me, gave me place, purpose and value. And by giving me so much experience being openly different—experience I’d avoided during my decades in the closet—teaching prepared me for gender transition and for the speaking and writing that has grown out of becoming and living as myself. Teaching taught me that I can not only survive but thrive in environments where I am seen as different, and that I don’t have to be understood in order to help others understand themselves and the humanity we share.
In this regard, my often painful position at Yeshiva University as the first and only openly trans employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution has been particularly instructive. When I returned to teaching as myself after getting tenure as a man, I realized that I had to transcend my longing to have others see me as I knew myself. Knowing that different students interpreted me in different ways—some as a man, some as a woman, some as trans, some as mentally ill or heretical—taught me to accept that I live (and can live) in a world composed of many different and often incompatible systems of gender. And trying to teach in ways that were not dependent on a shared understanding of gender or identity (at least my gender and identity) pushed me to think about them in more capacious ways, to see them not as essences but as ways of being human.
When it comes to faith, my sense of being socially marginalized by my trans identity has, paradoxically, been the foundation of my relationship with God and religious tradition. In what I have learned is a common experience among LGBTQ people, my childhood isolation heightened my sense of God’s presence; in a way, God was my primary relationship, because God was the only one who knew who I really was. Because my family wasn’t religious, no one ever taught me that I was wrong to feel that God was with me, that God not only accepted but had made me what I was, that God and I were bound together by our struggles to love human beings who couldn’t see us or understand us because we didn’t have bodies that expressed who we were.
As I describe in The Soul of the Stranger, that sense of kinship with God profoundly shaped my reading of the Hebrew Bible and my practice of Judaism. Instead of either trying to fit myself into Jewish tradition or accepting that I had no place in it, I made my relationship with God the basis for my own version of Judaism, one that affirmed the spiritual benefits of my inability to fit binary gender categories. My understanding of Judaism and Jewish tradition have deepened over the years, but I have never let go of that childhood sense of ownership, that sense that whatever Judaism is, it belongs to me and I belong to it. As a result, even though I’ve never felt fully a part of any Jewish community, I’ve never felt marginalized by Judaism, never felt personally wounded by its texts or tenets, never experienced a conflict between being transgender and having a relationship with God.
The Soul of the Stranger began as an attempt to bridge the often bitter chasms between trans and non-binary people and religious traditions. By the end of writing it, though, I realized that my childhood assumption that my difference gave me a special kinship with God was wrong. When I was young, I thought I was the only one in the world who, like God, was too different to fit into human categories. Now I realize that no human being fits the categories we create to identify ourselves and others, that we are all too various, too messy, too contradictory, too changeable—I would say, too closely akin to God—to truly fit within them.
That’s why we create identifying categories: not because most of us are the same, but because all of us are different, and these categories give us ways to simplify and stabilize our sense and expressions of who we are in ways that help us establish lasting relationships. That’s what identities are. Not unchanging essences, or expressions of biology or destiny: they are compromises we make to understand and be understood by ourselves and others. When we do them right, they are ways to love, and be loved.
Photograph of Joy Ladi by Lisa Ross.