“It turns out that both life and art are balancing acts. In one as in the other, Gore seems to be saying that even as we acknowledge past traumas, we cannot let those wounds dictate our actions in the present. The End of Eve is a product of bravery, love, and hard-won wisdom. In sharing it, Ariel Gore invites her reader to bask in the light she has found.” —Los Angeles Review of Books
Wendy C. Ortiz’s searing new memoir of growing up in Southern California in the ’80s and ’90s, Excavation, unearths the complicated legacy her five-year relationship with her charming and flawed teacher 15 years her senior. Her teacher — now a registered sex offender — encouraged her passion for writing while making her promise not to leave any written account of their dangerous sexual relationship. Excavation is just out from Future Tense.
You could make multiple twitter accounts from the different voices you use in your writing. In the business world, lacking a singular voice makes one less marketable. What drives you to write in your multiple voices when writing in a more singular voice may promote more traditional success?
If I stuck to one voice when in reality I contain a multiplicity of voices I wouldn’t feel like I’ve maintained the integrity of my work (and possibly my identities). Writing memoir specifically, it feels essential to me to unleash as many of the voices as possible (the ones I have access to, anyway). I also prefer a world where our multiple identities are given free range—which flies in the face of a singular voice and making one’s self “more” or “less” marketable. (The 28 year old in me is reading this going, Just how “marketable” have you ever been, and has being marketable ever really motivated you? for example.)
Excavation: a Memoir was just released this summer by Future Tense Books. Your next book, Hollywood Notebook, will be published by Writ Large Press in fall/winter. Will you offer readers of Hollywood Notebook a voice similar to Excavation? What should we expect next?
Hollywood Notebook takes place in Los Angeles after I’d spent eight years in Olympia, Washington in two separate serial monogamist relationships. I landed in my studio apartment in Hollywood, single, living alone for the first time in years. The voice spans the ages of twenty-eight to thirty-three and is very much influenced by the books, people, music, and experiences of that time. I call it a prose poem-ish memoir, as it contains eighty-some short chapters in the form of paragraphs, lists, and stream-of-consciousness passages.
After Hollywood Notebook I’m interested in returning to other works-in-progress: a book of music-themed essays, poetry centered on my mother and grandmother and our entwined relationships, a memoir based on my Modern Love column, and a memoir about the period in Olympia between the ages of 20-28 which I think of as a long gestation, and some other secret things.
If you could blend two of your voices together from any of your works (On the Trail of Mary Jane, Excavation, your essays at The Nervous Breakdown or Specter, etc.) which two voices would complement each other the most? Do you have a masterplan to eventually merge all your voices? Or you do enjoy the compartmentalization?
I’m fond of the voices that find themselves in my fiction (like “Black Car Land” in Specter, and some other fiction I’m working on)—there’s a starkness to the voices I feel both comfortable and very uncomfortable with. In some ways I blend the voices together when I put two stories next to one another, as I’m doing now with some fiction. The themes start to emerge from placing the work together and paying attention to whether the voices are complementary or not. The only master plan I have to is to see where the voices go, any of them, all of them.
No matter the voice, your writing is always very corporeal and visceral. You are very generous when it comes to material and emotional details, and it balances out very well. What are the physical drives that take you to the corporeal and visceral in your writing? What about the body and the emotions it manifests inspires you to write in such a way?
As someone who has struggled, then learned, then forgot, then remembered to stay in her body most of her life, focusing in on the corporeal and visceral feels necessary. It’s also what I enjoy about some of my favorite writers, how they bring me back to my body with their texts.
What would you say is the over-arching theme of your writing, the heart of your work?
I hesitate to say there’s one over-arching theme. If we think of a heart, the human heart with its four chambers, I might say abandonment (from others, of others, and of self); embodiment (of identities that help one to survive, however ‘survive’ is identified); exploration and troubling of the idea that there are only two sides to every story (which I don’t believe—I think there are many); and transformation. (It’s important to note that this is what I think today; if you asked me this yesterday or ask me tomorrow, the answer might differ. It’s not always static.)
Why, it’s a mythical place, a philosophy of life, a new book you’ll love.
It’s a collection of stories about vampires and superheroes, gypsy curses, giant killer robots, psychics, love potions, bar fights over stolen angel wings, and imaginary monsters.
It’s also a novel about overcoming depression, handling loss, and trying to find meaning in a world where the supernatural isn’t the hardest part of life to accept.
It’s the most fabulous book behind the most understated cover. And it will make you happy to be alive.
The print edition of The Greatest Most Traveling Circus is all yours from Sweet Candy Press: http://www.sweetcandypress.com. And there’s a Kindle edition, too.
Ariel: I fell in love with The Greatest Most Traveling Circus almost immediately when I cracked the cover. I could just feel the joy emanating from the pages. Is writing for you as joyous a process as it seems from the reading point of few—or more an arduous art?
Jonas: It was definitely a joy. I loved telling these stories. I would get immersed in them for long stretches of time. I’d write at work, at home, during my commute to work, in the bathroom; practically everywhere. When I wasn’t writing, I was still thinking about the characters and story lines. It was really exhilarating. On the train home from work, I’d write something that would have me literally laughing out loud, and I’d get a little worried that people around me thought that I was a crazy person. Then some parts actually had me in tears right after I wrote them. I can think of a few parts in particular that hit me pretty hard.
I mean, it was draining at the same time. There’s quite a lot of really personal stuff embedded in there. But writing it never felt like a chore.
Ariel: Can we talk about genre? Your book had been called an anthology but also a novel. What more can you tell me about the genre? I usually think of an anthology as multi-author, and all these stories are written by you. And I think of a novel as single-author and single-protagonist…
Jonas: I was really torn on whether to call it an anthology or a novel. Technically, it’s an anthology. But at one point during the writing, I started thinking of each story more as a chapter. There are recurring themes, a lot of characters reappear or are mentioned in several stories, and often details in one story resolve or unfold certain situations from previous stories. I wanted it to feel like an anthology at first, then unfold slowly in a way that feels like one story with a large cast of characters. I think, for me at least, the character Ramona is the protagonist, and the whole book is building up to her story.
Ariel: A theme of the book—right from the start—seems to be a certain randomness of existence. I was recommending it to someone and I called it “kind of a beach read that is also meditation on existential philosophy.” Do you think that’s a fair characterization? Or am I just maybe feeling very random and reading into it?
Jonas: That’s a perfect way to put it! I was reading an awful lot of philosophy while I was writing the book. Right from the beginning, what I tired to do was tackle a lot of very complicated philosophical ideas within the context of very simple stories. The layers are there, but you don’t have to dig for them to enjoy the book. I didn’t want it to be stuffy. Then, yes, many of the characters each seem to be in the middle of an existential crisis, you know, looking for a deeper personal meaning to life—which they realize, for better or worse, through the friendships they build.
Ariel: How long did it take to write The Greatest Most Traveling Circus? What do you like about the final product?
Jonas: I wrote the first stories around 2006 or so. I’d write large batches of them, compile them and give them to my wife as small gifts. I started writing the Amazing Man stories just after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. The inspiration was pretty clear at the time, you know, contrasting the renewed excitement over superheroes in movies with a tragic mass murder; you know, the fascination with superheroes in a country that keeps showing us very real, dangerous villains. It’s mind-boggling that, since then, superhero movies have become even more popular, and there have been many more mass murders like the Virginia Tech shooting. I mean, there was that Colorado shooting in 2012, where the shooter actually referred to himself as The Joker, and went on his rampage at the premier of a superhero flick.
But yeah, around 2007 is when I started to look at the work as a cohesive book and not just a set of stories that occasionally intersected. I finished it around the spring of 2011, but then there were edits here and there right up until it was published.
I’m really happy with how it all comes together, but I still think it works if you just flip through it and read the individual stories at random.
By Anna Yarrow
Wind. Wind. Be transparent as wind, be as possible and relentless and dangerous, be what moves things forward without needing to leave a mark, be part of this collection of molecules that begins somewhere unknown and can’t help but keep rising. Rising. Rising. Rising.
–Eve Ensler, In the Body of the World
Eve, I’m falling.
I attended your talk last week, and afterwards you hugged me and gave me a high-five, and said, “Way to go!” I spent the next day in bed, hiding under the covers, reading your new book. I read with my silence, my tears, my horror. I swallowed it whole.
I feel it digesting. An oracle. A wailing-wall.
You wrote about V-day, and One Billion Rising—women around the globe, dancing to end violence.
I confess: I was at the State Capitol on V-day, but I didn’t dance. I didn’t hold a sign, or march in the parade.
I didn’t shout, “Vagina!”
I was mute. Alone in the crowd.
A snaky voice in my mind whispered, isn’t it normal for men to rape? to be violent? isn’t that what women/vaginas are for? wives submit to your husbands. children obey your parents.
You said that next V-day will be Two Billion Rising—women around the globe, streaming to court houses and police stations, to ‘press charges’ against their rapists and abusers.
Snapshot: Tall stranger. Tiny girl. Dark. Blond. Alley. Hands. Going. Away. Where?
Real or imagined?
Video: Authority stands in my bedroom doorway—sleazy eyes and tight jaw. Says, “I spanked you because I love you. Because God told me to.” I live by spanking-time, an internal calendar . . . how long since the last correction? Gangly eleven-year-old, draped across his lap. Wooden spoon denting red ovals on my buttocks.
Someone told me that when I dream, all the characters are facets of myself. That’s what I’m afraid of.
I dream I am hermaphrodite. And wake, with something missing. My power. My Godhead.
My sexual fantasies: brutal. Coercion. Surrender. Ecstasy.
My mothers and fathers dance inside me, shouting, “Shhhhhhhhhhhh!”
Wind, molecules, words—catch me.
Anna Yarrow lives in Santa Fe.
Nina Packebush talks to Kate Bornstein about gender fluidity, writing from the scary places, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
by Nina Packebush
Reading Kate Bornstein’s A Queer and Pleasant Danger is like sitting down to coffee with any old friend. I found myself smiling, nodding my head in agreement, and crying more than a few tears.
Kate Bornstein is a self-described tranny, Jew, dyke, sadomasochist, adoptive Aunty to all the queer teenagers of the world, and lives with Borderline Personality Disorder. She calls herself a female, yet doesn’t identify as either a woman or a man and bucks most labels. In her new memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She Is Today, Kate talks candidly about her 12-year stint and eventual excommunication from the Church of Scientology, her battles with leukemia, anorexia, and cutting and her journey from “a good Jewish boy” to a transsexual icon.
Kate wrote the book as a sort of open letter to her estranged daughter and grandchildren who remain within the Church of Scientology. She wrote the book hoping that they will read it and come “to see a few more dimensions of their dad and granddad,” and possibly, reunite.
In the mean time, A Queer and Pleasant Danger is an inspirational, moving and funny must-read for the rest of us.
Nina Packebush: You said your PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) stopped or lessened after writing this book. Is writing a form of therapy for you?
Kate Bornstein: Yeah, yeah cuz one of the things that came with PTSD is memory loss and recreating a timeline of my life helped me plug stuff in. Not that I remembered much, but I was able to ask people who were around at certain gates, “Hey what happened?” And that got filled in. So yeah.
Nina: You talk about your anorexia and cutting pretty openly in your book and I love that. I think it’s really helpful for other people to hear you discuss these issues. Do you still struggle with anorexia and cutting?
Kate: From time to time of course I do. They never go away. I haven’t starved myself in over…well in about 6 or 7 years now. Not that I haven’t had the thoughts to or the ideation, sure of course I have. And I still struggle with self-image, but I’ve learned to trust other people when they say, “Kate you look so good.” And I think, okay I don’t believe you, but I trust you. I trust you have a decent pair of eyes in your head and you wouldn’t lie to me and I lean on that trust and it helps. As far as the cutting goes, I’ve folded that into my SM play. I like to cut myself during SM play or doing warrior marks, but never out of self-loathing or self-hatred.
Nina: Was it difficult to write so publicly about the SM stuff? In your book, I mean, knowing your daughter might read it?
Kate: Well in the book yeah, because it was for my daughter, but I wanted her to know, I still want her to know who I am. And I want all my kids to know who I am and I have lots of kids. Queer kids kind of own me as Aunty and I would like them to know who I am and I want to be respectful of people, so that is difficult. Of walking the line of respecting my reader and wanting to give enough detail, but not so much that it’s like that episode of South Park where he writes the book. No, I didn’t want that, so there is a fine line to walk. And where I think I learned to walk that line was in writing that book. I learned how to write about some pretty dangerous stuff in a way that wasn’t mean to my reader.
Nina: You use the word “tranny” and obviously that’s a controversial word in the queer community. Can you speak to that?
Kate: Well okay. I use the word because that’s how I self-identify. I learned the word from my first drag mom Dorris Fish who was an ultimate queen in San Francisco when I was there. She came from Sydney, Australia and I don’t know if you know the movie…the movie with the bus. Oh what was the movie with the bus?
Nina: Priscilla Queen of the Desert?
Kate: That’s it. You will notice in there the relationship between the one transsexual and the drag queen. That’s how it used to be. It used to be that every male-to-female that was transsexual or drag or whatever would do the drag shows. That’s how they’d make money. The transsexuals would save up money, get the surgery, and then say goodbye to the drag queens. And there was a hierarchy. They both thought they were better than the other, but they agreed that there was one word because they were family. And they called themselves trannies. And that’s a nice thing. That’s a family word. Now I understand that it’s been used as a hate word. I get that.
And then let’s take a look at why it’s so hateful. Whenever I ask someone why is it such a hateful word I get, “Well just google tranny and see what you get.” And I google tranny and I get all of this great tranny porn. Wow, yeah so what’s the problem there? Of course there are people who have been terribly wounded by the word and I’m sorry for them. I am truly sorry for them, but I think the vast majority of people hate the word because it’s so sexy and does imply there’s a lot of sex involved in a gender change and I own that and I think more people will be happier if they did too.
Nina: I have a grandson that’s very gender fluid. He identifies as a boy, but will only wear “girl” clothes and claims he’s going to be a girl when he grows up. It seems that recently there’s a lot out there about kids like this, especially boys that show more female traits. There are blogs, appearances on TV, news stories, and even books like The Princess Boy. What’s your take on the recent media focus on these kids? Do you think some of these kids are being pushed into claiming an identity too early?
Kate: I don’t think I’m qualified to speak on that. My point would be to if I were to meet your child I would simply respect his/her wishes and I would encourage the child to not make any drastic changes until their brain had fully formed at around 17 or 18 years old. There are, I understand, some really cool hormone blockers available and I would certainly be all for that. You got a child that’s insisting all along, “I’m another gender than you think I am,” well block the child’s hormones and when the child has become an adult in his or her own mind and in the reality of biology in the culture then let that person decide.
Nina: What is fear’s function in art? How does fear fuel art or does it?
Kate: It is the fuel. That’s why I make art, to get through. I think they’re symbiotic. I don’t think you can make art without fear. You can make great crafts. No, no I’m serious. It’s a different thing. It’s apples and orange. Sometimes I make very good crafts, I make comic books like that, but I wouldn’t call it art. But when I go and make crafts with the intention of walking through my fear it turns into art somehow.
Nina: What can queer artists, or artists in general, do to change the world?
Kate: Nothing. Not a damn thing. That’s just the way it is.
Nina: Do you have any advice for writers?
Kate: Yeah, I guess. Write every day. Every. Day. Write. And write into the scariest parts. When you’re faced with the decision of writing this or that, write the scarier choice.