What struck me first upon reading Krys Malcolm Belc’s debut memoir, The Natural Mother of the Child, is how relatable it is. Here is someone who has been through pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood and is not out to sugarcoat these experiences, but rather to think deeply about them—both in the ways his experience is universal and also the ways in which it is unique. Because it is unique: Belc gave birth, yet he has never been a mother. After identifying as trans for many years, he gave birth to a son and, after breastfeeding his son for two years, decided to begin testosterone therapy. Nevertheless, when his partner Anna adopted his son, the adoption certificate referred to him as “the natural mother of the child.”
Needless to say, Krys Malcolm Belc has thought a lot about family, gender and the body, from many different angles. The wisdom he has gained from his experience rings through his memoir, which tells the story of many kinds of transition, each in all its complexity. Over email, he and I spoke about this—family, the messiness of the body, the visual elements he uses in his writing, and why he sees this memoir, ultimately, as hopeful.
The Rumpus: I want to start by talking about documents. You structure this book around documents that have been forced upon you, yet also mark the most important points of your life: your birth certificate, the midwife’s report from your son’s birth, the adoption certificates of your sons. How did you come to these documents as a way to structure your writing, and what was it like to work from them?
Krys Malcolm Belc: The documents in the book still, after all the looking and manipulating, elicit a visceral reaction from me, but like most of the content from the book what that reaction is at any given time is like a shifting ground. I thought that place of uncertainty was a perfect floor for a longer writing project. Writing about bureaucratic forms was less effective for generating content than writing with them. Queer people complain about forms all the time, and the proliferation of forms that happens when you have kids is mind-boggling. On nearly every one I’m asked to make declarative statements that still puzzle me, about who I am and what my family is (we never use the words husband and wife, but I check married. I am not a man, but I check male.) Stylized prose that was about feelings about forms felt out of reach to me. It devolved into ranting, which has a place in my life but not in my creative work. But I really hit a flow and felt I had an organizing principle once I was actually in conversation with the forms: with the people who had designed them, filed them, and with the many Krys Belcs who had filled them out.
Rumpus: Your birth certificate was especially powerful—you break it into each of its individual lines, and use each of these as an entry-point into your own narrative work. It felt a little like through your writing, you were shredding the certificate to pieces. Is that how you saw it? Did writing from it change your relationship to it?
Belc: I was in a workshop with Matthew Gavin Frank and he told us we should try writing in an experimental form. Feeling bratty, I decided to take that literally, and I wrote a five-hundred-word document on legal-size paper: a footnoted personal birth certificate on one side, with my son’s birth certificate on the other. I’d encountered other nonfiction writers using footnotes to say something about story and memory—I’m thinking particularly about Jenny Boully and Sarah Fawn Montgomery—and I thought that this might be a good way to engage with these puzzling documents. The two-hundred-fifty words on the front page, the engagement with my own birth certificate, absolutely shattered into about sixty pages of the book. That took a long time, and a lot of thinking about what exactly a record like that means in a trans life. Every time I looked at one of the lines I would think of so many things I wanted to write about. Like just seeing my mother’s name on my birth certificate. How could I engage with the idea of who my mother was on the day I was born? I admire memoirs that have time as their organizing logic but that is not me. Using my birth certificate allowed me to have an associative structure, and to really delve into an examination of the “facts” of my birth.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about your birth story. Birth stories seem like their own genre, they’re told so often. I was wondering what you felt might make a birth story literary, versus conversational, and why in your book you give so many details of your pregnancy and after-birth, yet you don’t include a narrative version of your son’s birth?
Belc: My birth story isn’t private or mysterious. Maybe this is a disappointing answer, but the narrative structure of that day isn’t something that particularly interests me artistically. I had a relatively smooth and easy birth, especially for a first birth. I will talk about my birth any time, and I love to talk with people who are anxious about it because mine really is a shining anti-birth-anxiety story. I had a lot of support and felt very safe and loved. That day, things moved linearly in a way that they were supposed to.
Even though I read a lot about the history of healthcare in the years I worked on the book, I didn’t read anything about birth care. I now work in a healthcare setting—in an oncology clinic—and I’m fascinated by learning about the care the practitioners at my work provide. Anna works in two jobs, as an emergency room nurse and as a labor and delivery nurse. When she comes home from the ER, I am riveted by anything big or small that she shares. Her stories about births just don’t get me going.
When my friends have kids, I do want to hear everything about their births and I think I’m a compassionate listener. I can be fully present for that as a friend, and of course I set aside my artistic concerns about birth’s narrative structure.
The whole time I’ve been writing this, I’ve been thinking about my favorite early motherhood writing, and so little of it covers the birth; my story, like those stories, really picks up immediately after, in that messy aftermath.
Rumpus: You have a writing style that is not afraid to embrace the messiness of a body in transition, whether that is during pregnancy and childbirth, or transitioning between genders. How did you come to this style?
Belc: I started out as a fiction writer. The control I exerted over my fictional characters was stifling. They were repressed, squeezed out of their most potentially interesting and complicating factors, by an outside force—me. The freedom I found in nonfiction has been nothing less than thrilling. For me, creating art out of the memories I already have, the ideas I get from research or talking to people or pictures I take, it just works a lot better. Formally, I can do whatever, play, experiment. I don’t feel pressure to have answers or linearity. Of course, some fiction has no answers and is non-linear, but every time I write fiction I find that controlling aspect of my personality coming out. Almost every essay or piece of memoir that I write is really predicated on not knowing and not wanting to have control over what the takeaway is.
Rumpus: One of the most powerful chapters in the memoir is one in which you decide to start taking testosterone. In taking T, you make the transition from parent to father, and you are forced to confront the threat of violence in several different ways. You are, rightfully, worried about violence from strangers and a neighbor who stalks you. At the same time, taking T makes you feel more like your own father, who was sometimes violent in your youth, and you worry about whether T will exacerbate violent outbursts that you feel within yourself. What was it like to write about violence and manhood in this way, and what does this mean in a book that is otherwise largely populated by women and children?
Belc: One of the earliest and most valuable criticisms/calls to action I got about this project was that I was shying away from writing about my father. Like everyone else in the memoir, including me, my father is not only what is in the pages. My mother is not only cheeky and clever, and my mother-in-law is not only losing herself to brain cancer, and I am not single-mindedly obsessed with gender and parenting. My parents have a loving and lasting marriage and my father was an active parent, and adored his children in his own way. I begin the book with the image of being held by him, and my favorite photo in the book—the one that is my screen saver—is of being held by him. Like I said earlier I really am drawn to images and documents that elicit strongly contradictory and confusing feelings.
In my young adulthood I was an explosive person, something you likely did not know when we met (in 2007!), something that I had to work on, and something I realized was holding me back from experiencing my full range of emotions as a human in this world. I feel a lot of empathy for others’ anger, but I am also very sorry that there are people in my life who have memories of me that are much like my memories of my father. That doesn’t excuse screaming at people or intimidating them or breaking stuff because I couldn’t calm down. I’m not writing a memoir to make me look good or nice. Medically transitioning made me feel significantly more at peace, and I am a better parent and partner and person because of it. I feel a lot of joy, love, and sadness and I don’t worry that it will become anger. I think early into my medical transition, I sat down and wrote what I was afraid of, and I’m proud of that section of the book. I didn’t think I could make art out of that and I did. But that essay still makes me nauseous to read or look at, and I often wonder if I will grow past that.
Rumpus: Your title is The Natural Mother of the Child. “Mother” is a pretty loaded word in this memoir. Can you tell me about choosing the title?
Belc: I chose the word “mother” out of defiance. I know that there are people who will always see me that way. No one I truly love will, but many people will see me as a mother, though I am not. I wanted that to be in the reader’s face the whole time.
Rumpus: Late in the memoir, you tell your son Samson, “I can’t write about me without you.” This resonates in many ways for me. I love it, because it so simply and perfectly describes parent-child relationships in the early years, but it also gets at a key tension for a memoirist, which is: in writing my story, what responsibility do I have to those I love? Was this something you thought about while writing? Were there any lines that you felt you could not cross in the way you portrayed your children, or anyone else in your family?
Belc: Samson was five but still in preschool when I wrapped up this project. It turns out that for better or worse he is the most private of my children. I’ve showed him that I used baby pictures of him and I’ve told him what the book is about, and I told him what I will tell you: that memoir is a project of the self (I mean, for a seven-year-old, “It’s about me, not you.”) My project is not to paint other people in a certain way to flatter them or to demean them. I’m trying to talk about how the way people exist in my memories reinforces my interpretation of what gestational parenting means in my life. Luckily, I do think that ultimately my children were so young when I was writing that I had a liberty; there wasn’t a lot of hand-wringing to be done. In newer projects, their privacy is in the forefront of my mind, and it’s more complicated.
When I look back on the memoir the one hope I have is that people understand how contradictory feelings about someone don’t mean that they are bad. My mother-in-law died as I was writing, and the Ewa in the book is so complicated to me. She did not get her daughter’s queerness or queerness in general but she always treated me so decently. She was a special educator, like me, and she knew I tried to be good to her daughter. And she told me what I was doing well, something my parents struggle to do. Anna’s mother mothered the person whose love has been most transformative in my life. I really hope that comes through.
Rumpus: Has your family read your memoir?
Belc: Anna has read it.
I don’t know whether my family-of-origin members read my published writing. I honestly would hope they don’t read the book, but know they probably will. I read that Roxane Gay asked her parents not to read Hunger. If I did that they would be more likely to read it. I am not the only artist in my family, nor the only artist to make autobiographical work, so I think that if they do read it, we’ll just never talk about it. I said it in the book and it is true: my parents and I have never, not once, had a conversation about the fact that I am trans. If it is an issue for them, they have dealt with that privately. When they came to see me at the end of graduate school they attended a reading where I read an early version of the last section. First of all, they had come all the way to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where it was essentially still deep winter in April. That says a lot. Listening to me read that most vulnerable writing, my mother cried a lot, but it seemed to be the kind of crying you do when you are not mad or upset or even sad but when you really see someone in a way you might not have before.
Rumpus: I know that this project started out as a series of essays. I’m curious about the evolution from essay to memoir—and the process of putting this book together.
Belc: It wasn’t one thing formally but it was one thing thematically. I had to give in to the fact that what I was writing was unified, and that the writing was taking on more meaning the more of it was put side-by-side. I remember making a color-coded poster of the sections and themes and seeing how impossible disentangling these ideas would be.
Rumpus: Along with bureaucratic documents, you include sweet and candid photos of yourself as a baby, of your mother, and of yourself as a parent with your son. How did you choose these, and how do you see them in dialogue with the other, more official documents you use?
Belc: Photographs are so endlessly powerful. I am a nostalgia addict, and looking at photographs is often a catalyst for writing for me. I am so inspired by W.G. Sebald and Claudia Rankine and Mary-Kim Arnold and Alison Bechdel, writers who really use photographs in different and compelling ways. The photos in my memoir are not illustrative. The tenor of the photograph does not always track logically with the text. The photographs’ primary goal is to elicit feelings I didn’t think I could manage in writing. And the photos, I hope, rise above the documents. The image of a person in motion, living their life, is more powerful than the words we come up with to describe the meaning of that person’s life.
Anna and I have a debate about my book. She thinks it’s “sad,” and I don’t. I think the idea that the book is sad is reductive. I have intense feelings, some of them negative. But I also have a lot of hope for my life and for my children’s lives. I think that deeply interrogating my experiences, and the enterprise of creating a new generation, those are hopeful acts. The pictures mirror my hopefulness. They are aspirational. If I had a picture of child-me crying, of Samson crying, I would not have included it. It would not have fit into my project.
Photograph of Krys Malcolm Belc by Mark Likosky.