Emerson Whitney

Toward a Glimmering Unknowable Self: A Conversation with Emerson Whitney


Emerson Whitney, writer and professor at Goddard College, has given us a thrilling memoir in Daddy Boy (McSweeney’s), the electric follow-up to his acclaimed memoir, Heaven (McSweeney’s). Whitney writes, “This book is the back of a wide open mouth. A mouth that’s also a cloud.” Daddy Boy begins with a central question that spurred Whitney to join a tornado-chasing adventure group and start his life anew. Alone and living in a tent, Whitney reads aloud the application question: Why do you want to join Storm Travelers? “I wanted weather. Maybe I wanted to be put in my place. Maybe I wanted everyone put into theirs.” This is spoken from the mouth of a 31-year-old trans writer who had only recently been prescribed testosterone and was stepping inside their own changing conditions. Meanwhile, his own impending divorce swirls around him, a decades-long power play of dominance and submission. The application to join Storm Travelers is accepted.

After he returns to his stepfather’s home in Dallas, Whitney boards the Storm Travelers van with a British group of queer thrill-seekers and takes us north to Tornado Alley, through Walmart parking lots, highway memorials in El Reno, Oklahoma, and miles and miles of the desolate Great Plains. Sitting among the Storm Travelers on our way to Joplin, Missouri, a swarm of memories emerge and we’re transported back in time, to the writer’s past. We meet the mouth of a young neurodivergent Whitney, who dreams of storms, being one, catching one, swallowing it whole.

Where Heaven interrogated femininity and motherhood, Whitney recalls the Daddy figures in Daddy Boy—his adoptive father, his biological dad, his dominatrix lover—who cut shapes throughout his life, asserting their wants in a way Whitney didn’t know he wanted to want too.

The book asks a crucial question: Who gets to be Daddy? Dismantling the language assigned to man-ness, which question will be the one to transform us?

“I am happy to go anywhere Emerson Whitney wants to take me,” says CAConrad, in praise of Daddy Boy. Whitney has constructed a map with no clear destination, no final answer or resolution. On this road trip, there are gas pumps and chips for frequent refueling, but the adventure of Daddy Boy is ultimately a cloud-wandering—a refusal to stay in one place, a moving in all directions towards a glimmering unknowable self.

I recently chatted with Whitney on the phone about swarms, storms, antidotes, and what it’s like to reimagine the engineering of masculine language.


The Rumpus: You start your Daddy Boy tour at the end of this month! How are you feeling about it? Does each new project feel like its own meteorological event or perhaps a rebirth?

Emerson Whitney: How am I feeling? Good question. The birthing metaphor is apt. By the time a project comes out, I wrote it two or three years prior. I’m always working on something else when a book comes out, so I’m waist-deep in another project. I’m having to reengage with [Daddy Boy] as a new thing that people are seeing for the first time, and I get to join them in seeing it new. I love that part. I’ve also had to learn, like having a child, my job is to care for it. I can’t just leave at the inception point. I have to care for the book in my desired form of caregiving, which is having these kinds of conversations. I’m grateful to hang out with folks who also want to be enthusiastic about it with me.

Daddy Boy cover

What these books are is a screenshot of my thinking at the time. I’m honored that those kinds of screenshots get read and shared. I feel vulnerable when a new project comes out. Here’s this whole thing I was thinking about for a few years and then stopped thinking about for a while. What if it seems outdated or uncool by this point? What if language has even moved on from the language I used and new definitions have been created? In this particular book’s case, life has really happened. A lot of the themes have been affected by nuanced life events. In a cool way, it becomes an archive.

Rumpus: Daddy Boy is your second hybrid memoir, incorporating theory and personal narrative. Your first book, Heaven, originated from poems. Did Daddy Boy also begin as poetry?

Whitney: Daddy Boy actually did not have the same inception at all. It’s very different, and I think that’s because I worked away from saying things in obscurity. Poetry and wordplay, the energy of the line that matters so much to me lives in here, but when I was more like a little sapling in relationship to genre and form. I was scared to say some of these things more straightforwardly. I had a teacher, Mady Schutzman, who told me, “Obscurity for obscurity’s sake is really not the gig.” For me, that message worked. I was leaning too much on obscurity because I was hyper-aware of how I was seen. I’m a spectrum person. I have a very high antenna for people’s facial expressions. I’m very scared of displeasing people. So, somehow, for me to be an autobiographer seems like the weirdest thing, and yet the autobiographical impulse in me is so strong that there’s no other route. Mady’s comment opened the door to prose for me, in a way that I think is very authentic to how writing is enacted in me and how I want to enact it in the world.

Rumpus: Belonging and visibility are two themes that are explored throughout this work. “I always feel cut out,” you say. “The return [to home] is more of a problem than the walking away.” Does writing autobiographically make you feel more visible, or in control of your visibility, as if you’re holding that reclaimed face in one hand and a glue stick in the other?

Whitney: Totally, it absolutely does. I guess I’d even call it an antidote. When I’m talking to anyone about anything—I currently live with my spouse and my best friend—I notice, with them, it’s very easy to say the whole story because they let me. If I’m having a quicker conversation, it’s almost like I’m giving the line that connects to this swarm of thoughts. The great thing about writing autobiographically, in these kinds of ways, is that I get to write the whole swarm of thoughts and connect them as I want to. I can give everyone the whole package of what I’ve been thinking. In that way, my antidote to the feeling of being unable to successfully converse and share personal stories in a neurotypical way is giving myself the permission to just say the whole thing.

Rumpus: I love the swarm. It feels like you are, organically moving from association to association, past to the present, in this interwoven, undulating pattern. Is this a technique you found on your own, or did someone encourage you towards that kind of writing?

Whitney: I wish I could say I wrote it myself, but I am a constellation of influences. One of the things that I find inspiring about a lot of contemporary writing is that people are really down for genre mixing and blending and hybridity and revealing what it is to have a mind. Writing, in so many ways, is just our thinking.

Rumpus: How does identity play a role in your own writing process? Does writing unlock opportunities for more understanding?

Whitney: That’s really the overall theme of Daddy Boy: What does it mean to capture something, and hold it, and save it, as a way to understand it and digest it? There’s a wonderful capacity for mutability and change and growth that is within any one of us, but I mean to just name it. There are interlocking systems of oppression that make it so we don’t necessarily have access to our full selves, however we’re raced, sexed, classed, gendered for example. Can I ever get fully out of that? Once in a while, I’ll think, “Oh this is who I am,” and then it moves again.

I was raised in a family with neurodivergence. Everyone felt fugitive in a lot of ways. I was raised with this feeling of needing to squirrel away the most magical aspects of self because it was possibly in danger. It was all about keeping these special parts sacred and secret. I think a lot about Fred Moten’s work on fugitivity and how humanness, in some ways, is unfathomable. It’s so deep and wild that I will never fully grasp it. The act of trying to understand it, especially from the outside or by looking at other people, can be very harmful.

On the flip side, it can be hard to date if you have that framework! You sometimes need to put people in boxes (or maybe a lovely little room, or outdoor patio) to help find each other and build community with that solidness. There have been times where I have named aspects of myself and it totally feels like I’m lit up from the inside, with joy. Yeah, it moves.

Rumpus: Going back to the themes of catching and knowing and capturing, in Daddy Boy, would you consider yourself a forever-seeker?

Whitney: The desire, in Daddy Boy, to be hit by a storm is very real. If there was any kind of weather event happening right now, I would absolutely get in the car and go. It grabs my attention in a way that other things don’t. I do sometimes wonder what it means to have an active mind. If I were to let my mind do what it does, it would be running all the time. I do get gripped by my thoughts. I take actions based on these thoughts that are flooding through all day. I’ve had to learn how to have more pause sometimes. At least, in the context of this book, I found myself wanting that feeling of external enforced presence. Otherwise I’m having to work at it—here I am, feeling my feet—it’s challenging for me. The thing that always does it is a good storm.

It’s not clear why storms are so cool to me. As I say in the book, I could have been a horse boy or girl. Instead, I don’t know why I’ve always appreciated cracking, booming weather. When I need to calm down, I listen to thunderstorms.

Rumpus: How do you reconcile your interest in storms with the very real and severe impacts they can have on lives, homes, and ecosystems? It seems that the media and shows on TV can sometimes sensationalize storms or diminish their devastating realities and aftermaths.

Whitney: It’s important to recognize that these storms are also really dangerous. I was hoping to articulate this in the book. I’m not looking for an EF-5 tornado. I like a strong thunderstorm with tornadic activity, but it’s very scary and serious if you’re there and you don’t have a place to go. So many people are impacted by weather, especially as our weather changes. I worry about people I care about who live in places that aren’t used to having tornadic weather. There were the tornadoes last December; that’s not typically something we look for at that time of year. As an armchair weather enthusiast, I have my big weather concerns, but there’s that really nice sweet spot of a strong storm that doesn’t hurt anybody or anything. Way better than TV.

Rumpus: You joined the Storm Travelers, a queer-friendly storm tour group. You and six other people, who all happen to be from Essex, United Kingdom, hop in a van and chase storms up and down Tornado Alley on the Great Plains for ten days. This community, which you say you didn’t think you were looking for, ended up being a kind of a family on the road. Do you still keep in touch with them? What do you think they would say about your depiction of the experience?

Whitney: I don’t keep in touch. I always care for whoever is letting me write about them, and so I was really grateful they let me do that. I felt that if I had kept engaged with these individuals, it would cloud the book. I wouldn’t be able to write it in the way I wanted to, which was with a little bit of distance. I do write about family and people who are evolving in my life, but in some ways I notice I have a habit of writing a book that is very personal, which Heaven absolutely is. Daddy Boy is personal, too, but it’s almost a break for me to turn towards making a more poetic documentary/nonfiction project.

Rumpus: I read an older version of Daddy Boy, in which you dedicate the book to your childhood self. This personal dedication has since changed to “To trans family everywhere.” I’m fascinated by dedications. Dedicating, I think, is a kind of devotion, an invocation, a remembrance, and maybe even a responsibility to the person or persons you name. Can you talk about this older dedication and why you ultimately decided to turn from the individual to the collective?

Whitney: I was definitely workshopping this dedication for a bit. The book itself is really dedicated to this little kid part of me. In the language of neurodivergence, storms are a “special interest” and I’ve always had a love and focus for them. This is a book about permissiveness around that love and then discovering a community that is also hyper-focused on this one thing. It’s for that little kid part of me that was there before, needing to hide that part, out of embarrassment or shame or just fear of not being able to fit in. This really is what the book holds for me, in relation to my child-selfhood.

To change it, invoking trans-ness, in this particular moment, I can’t not pause and thank all of the endless support I have received from trans folks and trans elders and trans people who have made my life absolutely possible to live. I really wanted to make that the entry point.

Rumpus: Early in the book, you share a quote by the musician St. Vincent: “To become Daddy is simply to become yourself and to become comfortable in your own skin.” In this context, Daddy becomes an adjective or maybe a fluid state of being; an energy or costume to be tried on, rather than a gendered parental or hierarchical social role. Could you talk about this queering and nuanced description of what Daddy is and can be?

Whitney: You’re reading all of the connections that I was attempting to make, so I’m appreciative to hear that back. It was more of a puzzling than an answering. I think I was really questioning what St. Vincent was saying. Who gets to be comfortable in their own skin is a question that’s really important to me. Especially using the word skin. Instead of defining the word Daddy, the hope is to take Daddy off of what we associate it with, which is man-ness. What could Daddy be? What is man-ness without Daddy?

Just because a person is knowing of one’s self and making choices, does that mean that they are comfortable? Does that mean that they are alpha? Does that mean they are a man? Does that mean they are in charge? I’ve always questioned this. I never wanted to embody so many of the things that I find really harmful, not just about masculinity or man-ness but also about dominance and assertion. None of those aspects have had a lot of positivity in my life. I always wondered why Daddy was a cool thing to be.
Rumpus: You often write about smells: how certain people smelled, how your stepfather, Hank, smelled, the smell of his car, places smelling for no apparent reason with no apparent source. Smell extends the reach of the page, opens up an extra dimension of experience in the scene that the reader is co-building with you. Can you discuss your attention to the smell of things?

Whitney: I’m a sensitive person, so the olfactory aspect of having a body, having a sensory experience are things I’m clued into all day. Someone’s cooking in my kitchen right now, and it smells great! I love that you say the person reading this work is co-creating this world with me, as that is the aim. I really just want to hang out with everyone.

Rumpus: What books have you been loving and hanging out with lately?

Whitney: I’m looking at a stack of books right now that I’m reading for my next project. I’m enjoying Samantha Hunt, Anne Boyer, Arisa White, Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty. They’re in this room with me.

The cool part about writing as I go is that I try to name who I’m reading in the book itself. It was fun to feel like I had a lot of permission in Daddy Boy, working with Donna Haraway’s texts and theory and the natural sciences. My favorite thing I’ve been reading lately is Renee Linklater’s book Decolonizing Trauma Work.

Rumpus: Is that also related to your next project?

Whitney: Yeah, my next project is very much about disability and exploring what it means to be someone whose mobility is just decreasing more and more. I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. For me right now, it means that I’m using mobility devices that I wasn’t before. Now, I use crutches. I’m in a wheelchair. I love my wheelchair. I’ve spent a lot of time reading Eli Clare’s Brilliant Imperfection, Crip Kinship on the work of Sins Invalid by Shayda Kafai, and other material by Sins Invalid. All of those nodes are aspects I’m working through.

I really feel like the project of my life is life writing. Each piece I turn out is really part of a series. I didn’t have the same—can we call it, hubris?—to call it My Struggle like Karl Ove, but I am life-writing in books that are sequential. I couldn’t have gone on this storm tour now in the way I did before. I would need more support, and I don’t know if I could even have gone. I am passionate about working through life as life happens through writing.




Author photo by Char Bataille

Cameron Finch is a reader, writer, editor, and creative, living among their beloved trees in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Cam’s writing appears in various places including The Adroit Journal, The Common, CRAFT, Electric Literature, Isele, Michigan Quarterly Review, Tiny Molecules, and The Rumpus. Cam’s current projects can be found at ccfinch.com. More from this author →