THE BRUTALITY OF BELIEVING: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore In Conversation with Kathleen Rooney
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
The End of San Francisco
(City Lights, 2013)
A curriculum vitae-style list of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s many dazzling accomplishments gives you some sense of who she is as a writer, thinker, and queer anti-assimilationist activist. She is the author of two novels, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly and Pulling Taffy, and the editor of five anthologies, including Tricks and Treats: Sex Workers Write about Their Clients; Dangerous Families: Queer Writing on Surviving; That’s Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation; Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity; and Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform. But specific as such a list is, it seems entirely too impersonal and objective for an author who is nothing if not deeply personal and passionate. To that end, a brief anecdote about how captivating it is to be in Mattilda’s written and actual presence: After being a fan from a distance for years, I met Mattilda in person at a holiday party and reading for the online magazine Bookslut, where we shared, as she put it afterwards, “a moment of intimacy in the bathroom.” It was a wintry December night, snowing and blowing, and we’d both ducked into the bathroom to use the mirror to check our hair. I was intimidated—kind of star-struck—and couldn’t say much more than “yes, of course” when she stood next to me and asked, “Can I fix my hair in here with you?” After that, I lacked the courage to speak to her again for the rest of the night. But I did get to hear her read a passage from the title essay of her stunning, concentric, non-linear memoir The End of San Francisco, and I knew just from that excerpt—so smart, so conversational, and so deeply felt in its analysis of love, loss, community, disillusionment, and flamboyance as resistance—that I had to read the whole book and talk with her about it.
Kathleen Rooney (Rail): In his December 2013 New Yorker article about Pope Francis, James Carroll quoted Italian journalist Antonio Spadaro (whose interview prompted the pontiff’s much touted response, “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge”) as saying: “Style is not just the cover of the book. It’s the book itself!” With that in mind, I’m going to start by asking you about the cover of your book, which I hope won’t seem superficial to you. The image is a photograph by Florencia Aleman of Brian Goggin’s art work “Defenestration,” which has been located at the corner of Sixth and Howard Streets in San Francisco from 1997 to the present. Can you speak about what it depicts and why you chose it?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: When I sent the manuscript of The End of San Francisco to writer friends for feedback, one person told me she wanted to see a clearer arc of moving to San Francisco, finding everything I wanted, and then watching it fall apart. But it was never like that—it was immediately everything at once—hopeful and debilitating, traumatizing and transcendent. So I wanted the cover image to convey that, and then I thought of that building. I had never known the name of it before, but it’s an iconic Victorian-type San Francisco apartment building that was gutted due to a fire, and then someone attached pieces of furniture so they are literally hanging out the window, and then much of the bottom of the building is covered in graffiti and for years I walked around thinking that’s one of the most gorgeous things around and how the fuck is that building still there, through all these years of hyper-gentrification? And it kind of embodies so many of the intersections in the book. Because, as you mentioned, it wasn’t some DIY project, but an art installation approved by the owner of the building who waited years to make millions from selling it. Also, for people who’ve seen it, it’s a local reference, but for everyone else it’s like, what, is that really a sofa hanging out of that window, how did they do that? With pigeons sitting on it? I love those pigeons.
Rail: To linger on the connection between style and substance, in a review of The End of San Francisco, the San Francisco Bay Guardian describes you as—among many other things—a “genderblending thriftstore style icon.” Your fashion decisions are distinctive and thought-provoking—how do you decide to dress as you do and how do you feel about being identified as a style icon? How does your physical appearance connect to your overall project, both as a writer and as an activist?
Sycamore: I will certainly take all the compliments I can get! I think what I’m trying to do with my personal style is to illuminate some of the contradictions—the more contrast and color the better, right? Maybe I can make things playful even when confrontational, funny while sad—decadent and cheap, absurd and elegant, messy and precise. Flamboyance has always been important to me as a form of resistance to a world that wants us all to blend into blandness and conformity.
Rail: This memoir and its concerns seem to be a logical extension of your previous work, particularly the anthology you edited for Soft Skull Press called That’s Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation. Can you say more about why you take an anti-assimilationist stance, and also how you became—if I may use these labels to be rather general but hopefully roughly accurate—radical as opposed to just liberal or progressive?
Sycamore: I was called faggot on the playground way before I knew what that meant, and I definitely internalized the sense that I would never be accepted within the conventional definitions of masculinity. Eventually I figured out I didn’t want to belong anyway, so by the time I graduated high school I already saw myself as a freak, an outsider, someone who wanted to inspire all the silenced kids. When I left high school I embraced the term queer, and I knew this meant that I had to reject everything that wanted me, and anyone like me, to die or disappear. I was really so confused when I saw gay and queer people fighting for the right to become part of dominant institutions of oppression—marriage, military, the conventional nuclear family, organized religion, whatever. How depressing. We are never going to create alternatives if we just make a few cosmetic changes.
Rail: In your acknowledgments, you thank a lot of people, but maybe the most intriguing expression of gratitude is “all the queens who taught me how to walk. And walk. And walk.” (You return to this idea more directly in the essay “Wide Awake.”) What do you mean by that, literally and figuratively?
Sycamore: As a kid who was sexually abused by my father, traumatized by my parents and kids at school and the world around me, I was an introvert who retreated into the relative safety of books and teachers. Around age 12, 13, 14, I realized I would never find the people who would truly mean something to me, unless I could project a sense of invulnerability to the outside world. That’s what helped me to survive, and to find others like me. And, that’s the kind of self-expression I later glimpsed on those late-night club runways where the queens come out to walk.
These girls were not sweethearts, and I was not about to ask for what I might have wanted. But still, just watching, I was blown away by the transcendence of it all. It’s funny, though—I thought about how I walked way before then, like nothing could touch me, like someone could shoot me in the face and I would just brush that bullet off with a flick of my hand. So, you see, I already was one of those queens when I started to watch the glamour of the pageantry of invincibility on that literal and figurative runway.
Rail: Also, the most intriguing expression of not-exactly-gratitude is, “Can I even thank Chris Hammett, the friend who let me down the most? What happens to before, after?” This seems like a bold dedication, kind of a cross between a sincere philosophical and personal wondering and a back-handed compliment. What was your intention with this calling out in the acknowledgements?
Sycamore: Chris Hammett was my closest friend of 16 years, who stopped speaking to me without telling me, and oh how this challenged everything I believed about what I thought we were creating together. I write about him in the book, but under a different name, and originally this part of the acknowledgments was much more scathing and my editor objected. She thought it took away from the power of the book, so I thought of this more poetic way of marking our relationship. Because, really, when you believe in someone for so long, when they are so important to how you create your own values, your own way of existing in the world, and then they let you down in such brutal ways, are you still thankful for what that relationship taught you, I mean taught you before the reality caved in on you? I’m still not sure, but I do know that I have Chris Hammett to thank for finally leaving San Francisco.
Rail: As I was reading your memoir, I was continually reminded, both in terms of style and content, of Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz, which he called “A Memoir of Disintegration.” (And I mean this as a huge compliment.) Wojnarowicz is one of three people to whom you dedicate your own book—why did you choose him? And how did you settle on the mode of composition of your own memoir—its stream of consciousness approach?
Sycamore: Nothing could be a bigger compliment than to be compared to David Wojnarowicz. I first discovered his work in 1992, when I read about him in an article shortly after his death. Reading Close to the Knives was the first time I ever saw my sense of rage in writing, and also a sense of maybe a little bit of hope in a world of loss. And, a way of imagining sexuality as literally part of everyday experience, of the landscape, of relationships, both sexual and nonsexual. I am now just slightly older than Wojnarowicz was when he died of AIDS, and I’m grateful for his legacy even if we never met.
San Francisco has been the most formative place for me—socially, sexually, politically, emotionally, ethically. It’s also the place that has let me down the most. In writing The End of San Francisco, I was trying to figure out how this city kept its hold on me in spite of all the disillusionment, and so it was always important to keep this searching tone. I’m a neurotic editor, so even after editing the whole thing a dozen times, it was crucial to me to keep a feeling of spontaneity, because that’s how I think the shifts in awareness arise, the gaps in my understanding that lead to walls that lead to elliptical realizations that circle around one another, around me, and that’s the arc of the book I wanted. How to find me in this place where now I’m lost.
Rail: In the first piece in the book, “The First Time,” you notice a stamp that says Stop Family Violence, which is a moment of bitter comedy insofar as at that point in the narrative, you’re thinking about the sexual abuse perpetrated on you by your father, and also your father’s impending death from cancer, not to mention the complicity you see your mother and sister as having in what your father did and his refusal to take responsibility. How hard was this section for you to write, and did you ever worry that perhaps, in writing it, you were, in a way, being violent back to your family? I suppose this is a common concern of most memoirists—the honest telling of unpleasant and hurtful truths—but what is your technique for dealing with material that indicts other people, and the ethics of working with it?
Sycamore: Going to visit my father before he died was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. But, it was also one of the most important. I was able to be so present in all my emotions in spite of the fact that I was back in the house with all his violence, where everything and everyone felt aligned against me. And still, I was able to express my emotions in all of their complications, nuances, contradictions, something I was never allowed as a child. This was incredibly freeing. It made me realize I had really gotten away.
I would never describe truth-telling as violence. As far as writing material that other people might find painful, I generally send my manuscripts to the people who play a major role within, mostly so they can see what I’ve written ahead of time, so that it’s not a surprise. I always offer to change people’s names if they would like, and about half of the names in the book are changed, sometimes by my choice and sometimes due to someone else’s requests. But, often, it’s surprising what people find scary. My mother shocked me actually entering the book on the terms I intended, by saying that it felt like she was right there, in a movie, but it was real. She said it was real, even though she has never acknowledged my father’s abuse. Ironically, it was my second novel, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, that ended a few relationships—a few people became really concerned with how they were portrayed in the book, which I defined as fiction, but they had no interest in working on our actual relationships.
Rail: In the essay called “Together,” you recall a club of that name where you used to be able to “get that calm rush from dancing.” You write,
There’s a certain kind of nostalgia so specific to club life, like you can take any horrible place and suddenly it was the place where everybody got along when the drugs were great when there were no drugs when the drugs were actually fun when everyone was different when everyone was the same before the straight people the yuppies the suburbanites the tweakers the tourists took it over.
In the following section, you’re even more direct:
It’s common to lament the loss of 1970s gay culture, but I have no nostalgia for something I never experienced. I actually miss the possibilities of the 1990s when I did experience the hope of transcendence through an engagement with gestures of public desire.
Nostalgia has the potential to be a dangerous and distorting emotion both in general and in a memoirist—how were you able to write so compellingly, here and throughout, about nostalgia without succumbing to it yourself?
Sycamore: This was crucial to me, because I think nostalgia enacts a certain kind of violence, replacing lived experience with cultural amnesia packaged as revelation. I think when we examine our memories in all of their complications, nostalgia becomes impossible. Sure, it can arise in moments, but then you remember the reality. Honesty is the cure for nostalgia.
Rail: As a follow-up, much of the memoir is in some sense “about” the loss, like you mention above, of a certain kind of “hope”—hope in relationships, hope in art-making, hope in public sex, hope in a world that might realize it does not need to be so aggressively normalizing, and, as you say in the title of another of your books, “So Afraid of Faggots.” Do you see this as a memoir about disillusionment and disappointment? What ideas, things, and actions still give you hope?
Sycamore: One of the things I learned while writing this book is that I keep believing in the same cultures, the same values of creating a world to resist status quo normalcy, of building relationships through activism and desire and shared disclosure, of mutuality and accountability and negotiation, of flamboyance as comfort and instigation. Even when these cultures and ideals let me down, over and over again. And people have described this belief, and even the book as a whole, as hopeful. And this surprises me. So I think that writing about the relationships that have failed me, the gaps in my analysis, losing hope in so much, this can actually be hopeful.
Rail: In “The Texture of the Air,” you’re having a conversation with a guy on a phone sex line that goes as follows: “He says you think the whole world is San Francisco—you came here to be gay, didn’t you? I say I didn’t come here to be gay. I don’t say: I came here to be queer.” Later in the same essay, you write about having sex with men with whom, “If we talk afterwards and I say my name’s Mattilda, often these guys demand: What’s your real name? As if they’ve never heard of self-determination.” I loved this part for how simultaneously funny and sad it was, and it made me wonder about what strategies you’d suggest for trying to determine oneself in a world that sometimes seems full of people who just don’t think that hard about determining their own selves, let alone about how the various selves of others might want to be identified and determined?
Sycamore: I’m so glad you like that part, I added the last sentence towards the end of the whole editing process, and I really do think it is important. I find it fascinating that so many gay men, growing up in a homophobic world, are able to reach a point of self-determination as far as their sexuality, but then nothing else. This is the violence of assimilation—it robs people of their creativity, passion, critical engagement, analysis. I think the only way anyone can really exist in complex and liberatory ways is to basically ignore all the various ways our friends and enemies want us to silence ourselves in the service of a false consensus. And, we can’t truly create alternatives unless we also challenge the violence around us, otherwise it’s just escapism.
Rail: One of my favorite aspects of this book is the way in which you, as the writer, truly seem to be making discoveries as you go along. In “Anyone You Come into Contact With,” for instance, you write, “But I don’t know why I’m writing about Riot Grrrl—I mean, Riot Grrrl never meant anything to me,” then proceed to offer a number of meaningful insights, many of which constellate around Riot Grrrl. Obviously, the book has been drafted, revised, structured, and composed between when you first sat down to write these pieces and its publication, but they retain that sense of a writer who is questing—trying to figure out what she things about what she’s recalling. What was your process for writing this book like, and how did you preserve that sense of freedom and inquiry?
Sycamore: In a way, this book actually started with that section. It’s not the first part I wrote, but it’s when I realized what I was writing. I found myself writing about the band Le Tigre, and then Riot Grrrl, and then I was thinking what the hell am I doing, but I kept going anyway, and eventually it circles around itself, and it ends up being about me. So it was really important for me to keep that structure, even if and maybe especially because it could be confusing to a lot of people. Because that’s where the intimacy, the possibility for revelation, that’s where it comes in.
This book started as 1200 pages of material. Now it’s 186. Originally I took the whole sprawling thing and divided it thematically, so that, for example, there were 200 pages about trying to regain a sense of hope in my own sexuality. Now that’s a chapter of 15 pages. I had to be really meticulous about what I cut, but still I wanted to maintain the emotional sense of sprawl. The book is guided by emotion rather than conventional structure. In a way, each chapter is an ending of its own. And, maybe, a beginning.
Rail: In the title piece, “The End of San Francisco,” you write about “a whole generation of queers who came to San Francisco to try and cope,” saying, “I’m talking about us because that’s what we believed. We thought we were creating our own system of understanding, our own values, our own way of challenging the status quo.” What were the challenges of taking that authority—of writing in the assertive and declarative first person plural about a complex group of people at a particular time and place?
Sycamore: That’s a really important part of the book, where I find myself shifting from “I” to “we.” And it felt crucial because that’s exactly how it felt to live in San Francisco in the early-’90s, in a particular culture of self-identified queers and freaks and sluts and whores and dropouts, vegans and incest survivors and activist and outcasts. It was against them. As I say in the book, “They were straight people, they were abusers, they were rapists and landlords and cops, they were parents and politicians and anyone with designer clothes.” So it was us against them, but ultimately it was us against us. That’s what I’m trying to examine, the ways in which we let each other down, the brutality of believing in something so strongly, something like community or chosen family, and then it ends up ripping you apart in ways that can end up feeling just as violent as the worlds you were fleeing.
Rail: One of the great tensions in this book—especially at moments like in “Wide Awake” when you write, “San Francisco welcomed me like I was a widow and that’s how I decided to move back […] In those days, you could buy one ticket and travel anywhere you wanted for thirty days, so I figured I’d spend some time in Minneapolis and Chicago and Seattle just to see”—is between the concept of a place versus the concept of a community. How do you define community? And have you always been someone who is profoundly affected by a sense of place?
Sycamore: Community is so complicated for me, because it always ends up letting me down. So I’m not sure how to define it now. I know it’s not something you join, it’s something you make. I know that now I’m searching for the relationships that will actually hold me. Maybe that’s what community is, that search.
I think I’m always affected by a sense of placelessness. The place where I grew up that was supposed to be home but it felt like a trap, a prison, something I would never escape. I know that the only place where I truly felt I was home was San Francisco, and it happened twice, separated by six years. But I don’t think that will ever happen again for me in San Francisco, that’s why I had to leave, so I could search again.
Rail: This memoir was published by City Lights, and your previous books have appeared with similarly small, independent publishers, including AK Press, Soft Skull, and Suspect Thoughts. Did you deliberately set out to publish only on independent presses, or has it just worked out that way? What are the costs and benefits of being published by smaller venues as opposed to larger/more mainstream ones?
Sycamore: There’s no question in my mind that independent publishers are the most interested in and supportive of challenging work—in terms of both content and form—so they have always made the most sense to me as a writer. When I first moved to San Francisco, I actually fantasized about publishing a book with City Lights, but I never thought it would happen. So, in that sense, I’m really living my dream.
At the same time, there’s basically no way to financially support yourself as a writer on the money you make publishing books with small presses. For over a decade, I supported myself as a whore, and recently I inherited money from my grandmother, so these two things—one a conscious choice and the other a result of privilege—have helped me to be able to do the work that matters to me.
Another thing that becomes all-encompassing with smaller presses is that for your work to be seen by anyone, you basically have to integrate the promotional process into your life, and this can definitely get exhausting, especially when you’re doing it over and over and over again. With a larger press, maybe you can make enough to pay your expenses for a year or even more, instead of a month, and also sometimes the kind of visibility you develop can become more permanent. Every writer struggles with that question of visibility. Most of us want as many people as possible to engage with our work, right? For that reason in particular I would definitely publish with a larger house if a brave agent or editor wanted to take me on.
Rail: On the day I asked if you’d be up for an interview, January 1, 2014, you happened to tweet: “Every time someone I know celebrates marriage, I lose a little more hope in humanity.” I found this fascinating and can think of a lot of reasons you might feel this way, but I wanted to ask you: why?
Sycamore: Well, I’m sure we could spend the whole interview on this one question, so let’s just say that in particular I was thinking about the enforced consensus around gay marriage in queer spaces that extends to such a degree that even people who are opposed to marriage altogether—gay, straight, queer—even people who recognize that marriage is a tacky, outdated, oppressive institution feel the need to celebrate when people announce impending marriages. It strikes me as so sad that gay people are now propping up a hypocritical institution in order to access straight privilege, instead of fighting for universal access to basic needs.
Rail: In “Anyone You Come into Contact With,” (titled after Kathleen Hanna’s definition of community), you write about how in ACT UP meetings in the 1990s:
You had to be prepared for someone to tear you to shreds any time you said something—no, you didn’t have a right to speak about people with AIDS if you weren’t HIV-positive, or to talk about women with HIV if you weren’t a woman, and I’m not sure who had the right to talk about prisoners with AIDS since none of us were in prison, and definitely if you said something kind of wishy-washy or unprocessed, then several people would jump on you at once. You had to be incredibly meticulous, critical, and alert in order to say anything.
What advice, if any, do you have for people who want to be allies of all kinds to groups of which they are not explicitly a part—men who want to be feminists, straight people who want to help advocate for queer people, white people who want to combat racism, etc.?
Sycamore: I wouldn’t use the term “ally,” because I think that ally often becomes an identity rather than something you do. It becomes self-congratulatory, even exclusionary. I think that the important thing is the analysis—doing work to make connections between all the different forms of institutional, interpersonal and structural oppression. Making the connections in order to do the work that matters. When I was in ACT UP in the early-’90s, everything was so centered around identity. Belonging to a specific identity group was the only acceptable form of authenticity. Identity is a really important starting point—I don’t know where I would be without queer or faggot or queen. But when identity becomes an endpoint, that’s the nightmare of assimilation. Put the term “gay” in front of any oppressive institution, and suddenly you have the new civil rights struggle. Thankfully, I think that much queer analysis has moved away from a simplistic identity politic into something more fluid, self-critical, and potentially more challenging.
Rail: Is there anything you want to talk about that I haven’t asked you about?
Sycamore: I’m sure I’ll think of something in a few minutes.
KATHLEEN ROONEY is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press. She is the author of six books of poetry and nonfiction including, most recently, the novel in poems Robinson Alone (Gold Wake Press), For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs (Counterpoint, 2010), and the art modeling memoir Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object (University of Arkansas Press, 2009), Reading with Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America (University of Arkansas Press, 2005), and her first poetry collection, Oneiromance (an epithalamion) won the 2007 Gatewood Prize from the feminist publisher Switchback Books. With Elisa Gabbert, she is the author of That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness (Otoliths, 2008) and the forthcoming chapbook The Kind of Beauty That Has Nowhere to Go (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). She lives in Chicago where she is a Visiting Assistant Professor at DePaul University. Her novel, O, Democracy! will be published this spring.