Maggie Nelson – Writing by any means necessary
Author Maggie Nelson talks to Tulva magazine about the sadism towards mothers in our culture, and reminds us that the category of woman has always been shifting. She urges us to live in constant negotiation and curiosity toward nuances – also within feminism.
It’s late on a spring evening in May when Maggie Nelson —the American author and critic— appears in my Zoom meeting. I hasten to tell her that my one year old is asleep in the next room, hoping she will understand if the child awakes and their sleep-bleary wails interrupt our conversation. I am still astonished to be speaking with Nelson, live.
Nelson’s ninth book, The Argonauts (Graywolf Press, 2015) sprung her into international fame and landed on the New York Times bestseller list. In The Argonauts, Nelson quotes literary researcher and essayist Roland Barthes who writes that each time a lover speaks the words “I love you” they are like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Each time a lover speaks those words, the lover must renew their meaning. In The Argonauts, Nelson is pregnant with her firstborn at the same time as her partner, Harry Dodge, has top surgery and begins taking T. These bodies —their hopes, needs, and the norms cast upon them— gain meaning in a shifting political context.
With each reading, I have surrendered before the unfolding layers of The Argonauts. The first time I read the book, I cruised through, high-fiving the multiple feminist theorists streaking in the margins, my old acquaintances from Gender Studies. After I gave birth, I was moved by Nelson’s birth story, juxtaposed next to Harry Dodge’s account of his mother’s death. As a queer feminist who holds that autobiographical material spawns the most fruitful bases for theoretical analysis, it is rare for me to feel like the exact target audience of a literary work.
Recently, two of Nelson’s prior books, Jane: A Murder (2005, Soft Skull Press) and The Red Parts (2007, Free Press) have been translated into Finnish by Kustantamo S&S and published in a double volume. Nelson’s new book On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint was published this fall by Graywolf Press and S&S will be publishing it in Finnish in spring 2022.
We exchange COVID-19-related updates. In Helsinki I am still waiting for my vaccination, in Los Angeles Nelson is already fully vaccinated. Amidst the small talk we realize both of us were born in California and studied at East Coast universities. Nelson says wow, amazing in that sunny, American manner.
Because Nelson is renowned for her keen intellect, I plunge right into the deep end of queer feminist theory.
Nelli Ruotsalainen: In The Argonauts, you explore the implications of homo- and heteronormativity in forming kinship. I find the exploration of becoming pregnant, the pregnant body in public space, the assumptions outsiders make on your and Harry’s relationship, based on how they read your bodies and togetherness through a lens of cisnormativity and heteornormativity, especially interesting.
I wonder if you could speak to how these norms continue to intervene in your chosen forms of kinship as your children grow. How do we queer childrearing and make space from constraining norms in our everyday practices of parenting? How do we queer our roles within that parenting contract that outsiders may interpret and treat as “mother” and “father”?
Maggie Nelson: Those are good questions! It appears that I am not a great spokesperson for “how to” anything. As described in the book, the same thing will happen to you your whole life: you and your child will move through spaces with certain gendered projections, they will happen anywhere from school gatherings to restaurants, et cetera. The negotiation never ceases—though some big, important things are beginning to change, which is a good thing.
I think The Argonauts was perhaps slightly misunderstood, in that I did not really aim for the book to “queer” anything. Heteronormativity is a real thing as a norm, but part of what a norm does, is it sets up something like a reaction to it, and then that reaction can congeal into an identity itself, with a new list of behaviors or appearances that define it. And I’m not very interested in that; I never have been. One thing, in both mothering and just living, that I am interested in, is hanging out in the space between attraction and aversion, and trying to experience openness and criticality together. You know, finding a way to move through the world that allows for all experiences to be novel, that preserves, maybe even augments, the space for curiosity. And I think that that is often more helpful, because for some people trying to “queer” something can become its own form of constraint.
For example, if you bore your baby and are nursing… In something like breastfeeding there might be a feeling that the queerest way to feed the baby would be to split the work evenly between the partners. But breastfeeding doesn’t usually correspond to this kind of a split. If you decide to stick with it, there will be an inequity in the caring labor. There is not an easy answer to how you can “queer” your way out of this—it has to be approached and abided and negotiated the same ways one would struggle with any aspect of life.
”I think it’s helpful to learn more histories so that our current moment doesn’t seem like the first time that feminists have had to grapple with the category of woman.”
NR: You just brought up the challenges in confronting gendered labor. In Finland, 97-99% of parents who care for their children at home are women. Finland is lauded for its presumed gender equality, yet Finland ranks among the highest of countries in Europe on violence towards women. In recent years feminist discussions in Finland have centered on the right to self-determination around abortion, sexual violence, and recently also around obstetric violence.
It seems to me that sometimes in feminist contexts, it’s difficult to have conversations around the term ”woman” because this term is usually glued to biological essentialist understandings of women, which are exclusive and transphobic. On the other hand, I understand the violence and oppression enacted at different stages of reproduction for example stems from misogyny, or is directly based on belittling “woman” and everything associated with that category. I wonder, based on the theoretical work you put in The Argonauts around questioning fixed notions of gender, what strategies you see can be deployed in tackling this misogyny without relying on binary and essentialist assumptions of gender?
MN: I think you are totally right, this is one of the biggest issues in contemporary feminism. There is a book by British feminist Denise Riley that I quoted in The Argonauts called Am I That Name? Feminism and the Category of Woman (1988) that was really important to me when I was coming up as a young feminist. In that book Riley argues something like, the instability of the category of woman is not a bug of feminism, it’s a feature of it. “On such shifting sands feminism must stand and sway,” she says. Think, too, of Sojourner Truth’s famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” which memorably questions who is allowed into the category of woman via the category of race. Prior to today’s trans visibility movement, butch lesbians often carried the weight of others’ anxieties regarding the category of woman—Gayle Salamon is very good on this history in Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality (2010). There are so many ways in which it has gone on. I think it’s helpful to learn more histories so that our current moment doesn’t seem like the first time that feminists have had to grapple with the category of woman.
One thing that I tried to do in The Argonauts was to dramatize the compatibility of a world in which we would become more comfortable with language like “people with uteruses” and “people who menstruate” without feeling like that language pushed anything off the table. I wanted to show, on an intimate scale, how people can have different experiences of gender, of “the category of woman,” and still be close, that it doesn’t have to be a fight that tears you apart. It can be more like, “oh that’s how it is for you, interesting, to me I kind of feel like this…” And then we are in an inquisitive space —not one where we are yelling at each other or denying each other’s reality or prohibiting each other’s being. I think we can do this, that we can and will move to a more equitable and exciting place. It just requires education and bravery.
NR: In The Argonauts you quote poet Dana Ward’s term “many-gendered mothers of the heart”. I want to discuss these many-gendered mothers, because I am sure many of our readers consider you as one of theirs. Because the theme of this issue is intergenerational continuums, I am thinking about the way you incorporate these theorists into your book and the way that those intergenerational continuums pass down through theory.
I’m thinking about the example in the Argonauts in which your friend and former professor Christina Crosby’s students staged “a coup” and walked out of her classroom. They were frustrated with the limitations of poststructuralist feminist theories on today’s feminist activism, which springs more from a place of intersectional identity politics. Who do we keep along as our many-gendered mothers of the heart, who do we reject?
MN: I just interviewed author Olivia Liang about her new book Everybody: A Book About Freedom. We were talking about feminist theorist Andrea Dworkin and how, as a younger feminist, Dworkin’s texts had made Laing feel sexual shame. Now that Laing was older, in reading Dworkin, she felt energized. I think that the longer you live, the more you realize those feelings, like Liang’s about Dworkin, often correspond to where you are at in your life and what you need at that moment. And I think that people need really different things at different moments. I know I have! Our age and situation in life shape a lot of what we embrace and reject, but it’s hard to see that for what it is when it’s happening—as Emerson had it, “Our moods do not believe in each other.” So I guess I’m saying that keeping and rejecting—or, noticing the urge to keep and reject – is an ongoing process that’s integral to thinking and feeling. It isn’t a one-time event that holds.
One reason Eve Sedgwick is such a valuable theorist to me is because in her thinking she modeled the ability to absorb, and not reject ideas that didn’t necessarily align with her worldview. Her whole notion of queer was what one might call a “majoritarian version”—that is, instead of thinking that queers are some minority percentage of the population, she encouraged everybody to think more expansively, and more queerly, about their gender and sexuality. At the same time, she would be the first person to say that she had learned a tremendous amount from minoritarian, separatist, and even “paranoid” thinkers and movements that differed from her orientation.
NR: I think it makes sense what you are saying about age and thinking and it’s maybe not something people want to acknowledge, because they do not want to come off as ageist. Like when you are younger, this appeals to you, and when you are older you have the patience to think about things more, or hold more paradoxes and complexities…
MN: It’s a cliché, but perhaps true, to say that, as you live, you will make more mistakes and be humbled by them. I mean you yourself are a new mom… my kids are nine and sixteen, and the whole thing has just been an unraveling, or at least a profound challenge, to the notion that I would do everything right or better. You realize how hard, if not impossible that is, and how much you need to forgive yourself, even as you keep trying. That’s why I love Jacqueline Rose’s book Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty so much, because in it she states so clearly that mothers always fail and that failure is baked into the job. To be a mother, in Rose’s telling, is to be loaded up with the job of protecting your kids from suffering, which is impossible. So, you will fail at that, whether it’s for socio-political reasons, like, you aren’t in a position to provide the physical safety or economic security you desperately want to provide, or for spiritual/ psychological reasons, like, no human can keep other humans from experiencing the suffering that’s built into our existence. As Rose sees is, that inevitable failure is at the root of the culture’s sadism towards mothers. The sooner you are onto all that as a mother, the better off you are going to be…
NR: So I won’t fall from that high when it starts happening?
MN: Well you will anyway, I do every day! But maybe you can learn to recognize that the script of self-hatred and recrimination it produces may not be all yours to hold. You know, there may be parts of that you can let go of. You can begin to come up with new commitments and aspirations, like, how to be there for somebody in their pain better, how to prepare and accompany them, how to listen, how to make them feel loved no matter what. You can learn that the task of taking it [suffering] away is not only the wrong task, but one that can actually increase aggression.
”A book written while a baby naps is not a degraded book, it’s not a book that didn’t have presence of mind, and thus had to come out in little dribbles. It’s a book that did what writers have done since time immemorial, which is write by any means necessary.”
NR: In the Argonauts you write about being in this symbiotic bubble with your baby, and how you don’t want to leave that, but how you also can’t write while you are inside of it. And so I was thinking about how you also mention that you wrote some of this book while your baby was napping, so this makes me think of writers who are intimately rearing children —mothering if they prefer this term— exist in a material space marked by interruptions: the feeling of milk rising, the nagging worry that we just talked about, have they napped for too long, are they breathing. Do you think that this impacted your thoughts and/or writing process during The Argonauts, and if so, how?
MN: Honestly I resist facile interpretations that the fragmented form, or composition, of The Argonauts is somehow a result of ”baby time”. For many years prior to The Argonauts I taught a class at California Institute of Arts called “The Art of the Fragment,” and I published many books that experimented with fragmented form (Jane: A Murder, Bluets (2007, Wave Books)). Many of the books I taught and learned from were by non-mother people; many were written fifty, or a hundred, or even hundreds of years ago.
All that said: I do think that this question of interruption is really fascinating, because it taps into one of these ideas we have about unfettered genius, and what it needs, and what it looks like—you know, these patriarchal fantasies in which a man writes for hours in solitude, unencumbered by any other obligations. We all probably need and want uninterrupted periods of time to write; one of the agonies of the pandemic was the end, or at least the profound diminishment, of those times for so many. And yet, very few people throughout history have actually had that. And a book written while a baby naps is not a degraded book, it’s not a book that didn’t have presence of mind, and thus had to come out in little dribbles. It’s a book that did what writers have done since time immemorial, which is write by any means necessary.
NR: I saw in another interview how people thought or maybe this is something you said, about your work being “tainted” with motherhood, now that you were writing it on maternity leave, asking if you still had a brain?
MN: People did ask that a lot, and I think it’s difficult to pay homage to the true difficulty of finding time to concentrate, and to the changes in time and mind that infant-rearing can occasion, while also not indulging this idea of mothers having mush-brains. Also, there are a lot of things in life that alter our neurological state. Sedgwick for example wrote a lot about chemo-brain. That chemo can create a kind of fog that she would wade in and out of as she struggled with cancer for 15-18 years. Chronic pain affects our writing too—think of Nietzsche and his debilitating headaches! People are moving in and out of a lot of spaces and states a lot of time, and—I guess this is the majoritarian in me—but I would rather we folded motherhood into these rather than marking it as this one really singular, disruptive thing to intellectual life.
NR: Next, I wanted to ask a few questions about your two previous books, Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts. The Red Parts is about your aunt who, at twenty-three hopped into a car thinking she was going to get a ride home from campus but she was found murdered the next day in a graveyard. The book is about the murder trial, which was reopened twenty-three years later because DNA testing facilitated the re-examination of the trial evidence.
In the book you write a scene in which the protagonist walks alone at night through the city in which your aunt lived before she was murdered. In the scene the protagonist decides on a whim to lay down on train tracks in the middle of the night, she is drunk and walking home from the murder trial. Before this interview, I was just walking outside in the nearby woods and a man was walking behind me. I felt uncomfortable and sped up, even though he was probably harmless. This got me thinking of intergenerational trauma and fear. Can you write your way out of that? How did the process of writing about traumas and fears affect you?
MN: I mean, I think if I were walking in the woods and there was a guy following me, my writing would not have helped me [laugh] not be fearful! I’m not sure if it works like that, or that it should. I wrote that scene in The Red Parts to get at this tension in feminism that I think is crucial to bring attention to, which is: there is tons of violence towards women, and we need to try to protect ourselves from it, and yet, what could be more natural, as a human animal, than to want to walk on the surface of the planet and just marvel at being here, wherever and whenever? I wanted to write a scene that showed me inhabiting that urge while keeping present some of my biggest fears, which are literally intergenerational, vis a vis my aunt, but which have also affected feminized people throughout time.
”There is tons of violence towards women, and we need to try to protect ourselves from it, and yet, what could be more natural, as a human animal, than to want to walk on the surface of the planet and just marvel at being here, wherever and whenever?”
NR: What really stood out to me, especially in Jane and also in the Red Parts, was sisters and sisterhood. So, when I was reading what I thought was a beautiful poem about Barb going to see Jane debate and I think it ended “she [Jane] was not only good, it was great” . I thought it was so touching. I wanted to just ask about sisters and that relationship and how that’s mirrored in both books in two different generations your mom Barb and her sister Jane and you and your sister Emily?
MN: Friends of mine who were early readers of Jane: A Murder were very much like, this kind of just feel sensationalistic, like something bad happened to your aunt and you’re gonna tell us all about it and throw in a couple of poems? It really made me think, what was the issue beyond “murder, bad”? The more I thought, the more Jane’s truer subject became imagining my sister and me, and my mom and her sister, as these two conjoined, even twinned, sets through which I could think about coming up as white girls and young women in these two different moments, one in the fifties and sixties, and one in the seventies and eighties.
When we were teenagers, my sister took different risks than I did; I was actually quite fearful in comparison. We inherited the same story about my aunt, but we were working it out in different ways. And I thought that that was all really interesting. There is a poem in Jane that is more abstract than some of the other poems in the book, but remains really crucial to me—it’s the one called “Pretty Girl,” which begins: “Pretty girl beside/a blue pool.//Drugged-out, she/slips into//the water/like paper.//Shall I follow her?” It’s my sister that I am worried about here, but it’s also me. The poem is about touching that part of yourself as a girl that’s trying to figure out what is adventure and what is harm and what is self-destructiveness, and it’s also about how sisterhood can be form of reckoning with our shadow selves, the difficulty in telling where we end and another begins.
NR: In the first pages of your new book On Freedom: Fours Songs of Care and Constraint you state that ‘freedom’ is a difficult term to rally people behind, specifically because it has been co-opted by the right, but also because its meaning changes based on who uses it. Now that this project is done, what does freedom mean to you? Has it taken on any new dimension with the COVID-19 pandemic?
MN: I think if you do a book justice you burn out your interest in the topic while writing it. For example, I don’t care about the color blue nearly as much as I did before I wrote Bluets. A psychologist of interest to Sedgwick, Silvan Tomkins, wrote about “burning out the fear response”—this has been an important element of writing for me. Writing takes something that seemed very hard to touch, and then you touch it so much that eventually you just have a different response to touching it.
So, freedom was really a high impact issue for me for a long time, and I clearly needed to spend a lot of pages figuring it out. As I say at the beginning of the book, the first pair of things I was interested in was freedom and care, but, as I wrote, I began to be more interested in freedom and time. And now I think I’m more interested in time. So, the beat goes on…
Born in California in 1973, Maggie Nelson is the author of multiple books of poetry and prose. Her ninth book, The Argonauts (2015), was a New York Times Bestseller and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Four of Nelson’s books have been translated to Finnish and published by S&S. Nelson teaches at the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles. Her newest book, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, was published by Graywolf Press in the fall of 2021.
Jutun suomenkielinen versio on julkaistu Tulvassa 2–3/2021.