Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author of So Many Ways to Sleep Badly published in September 2008 by City Lights I recently got a chance to talk to Mattilda about the new book. He is also the author of “That's Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation” and the editor of “Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity.”
Hi Mattilda, thanks so much for giving me this interview
But of course!
Your book, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, is one of the most harrowing book I have ever journeyed through. I haven’t finished it yet and to tell you the truth I might not. There are joyous, fun, and empowering moments in it but overall I was in tears as I read it.
There is so much we have in common I think. That’s often where the problem starts with book reviewing. Personal involvement in a story. Whether culturally, emotionally, politically, religiously. One thing I saw was that you, like me, also walk the borderlands. We concern ourselves with alliances, with repairing the world, with the finding of true relationships and decent people who love their neighbors as themselves. As I said, we have so much in common. But wow! We are also different in many ways. As I read I thought, “Uhm, this author and I would probably get along very well on a day-to-day level but I’d probably try to steer clear of political discussions with him.” So, ready to be interviewed by a Black Christian woman who also walks the borderlands.
Absolutely — let's walk the borderlands together!
First of all, I’ve got to say that your story was nicely stream-of-consciousness. A bit on the rhapsodic side sometimes but definitely a book written by a talented author. It really touches the soul. I felt I was in the hands of a very skilled wordsmith. You are one great writer! Clear, accessible, opinionated, poetic. A fiction that feels like a memoir and which, I felt, had much of its author in it – although I kinda hope the cocaine bits wasn’t true.
It's all true, and it's all lies.
(Laughing) I totally understand. There is such thing as “soul” I think and few writers – few that I’ve read lately, anyway—have the gift of getting their soul into a book and touching the readers’ soul. Hey, I’m religious so I pride myself on being able to see “soul” in a work of art. And yet our ideas of what fills the soul veer away in different, often opposite directions.
First of all, your hero is pretty much a revolutionary in search of normalcy, decency and allies. At least I got that impression. I thought he (she) sought for kindness and good and loving open-minded people who are not enslaved to culture, the love of mammon (at the expense of others) and who are free-thinkers. Am I right?
A revolutionary in search of allies, absolutely! Now, decency and normalcy tend to be the property of the hypocritical “center,” so I would say that perhaps the narrator is in search of an end to the violence of the status quo, and, of course, intimacy and glamour and inspiration and I love what you say about people who are not "enslaved to culture" — that's a great way of putting it!
Yes, the “center” does tend to be hypocritical sometimes, because there is a lot of denial going on. I love your swipes at gentrification, by the way. As a straight person who knows a few gay homeowners but who didn’t really understand the ramifications of gay wealth and poverty issues it was very enlightening. I live in a town that is also undergoing gentrification so I totally understood why your character had issues with gay folks who don’t love their neighbors as themselves.
Well, in most places it's the wealthy property owners and real estate speculators, mostly straight white people, who benefit the most from gentrification, but there's also this horrifying history of gay gentrification that is especially magnified in destination cities like San Francisco, where So Many Ways to Sleep Badly takes place — and here you have this frightening history where white gay people came to neighborhoods like the famed Castro district in the 1960s and ‘70s, renovated houses, created a neighborhood for themselves and now they police the borders to make sure that no one dangerous like — people who can't afford to shop at diesel or the Pottery Barn, or — gasp — homeless people — or queer youth who get in the way of happy hour — don't get in the way of property values. Eventually they'll be gentrified out by wealthy straight people, like has happened in many other gay destination neighborhoods like Dupont Circle in Washington, DC or the West Village in New York. Cultural erasure is their ultimate success!
I think one thing a few folks in minority communities grow to understand is that even in minority communities some folks suffer more than others. I mean those who have understood rejection from the larger society should — “should” being the spiritually enlightened word—learn not to identify with the oppressor and should always remain part of the flock of the underdogs, at least within their hearts.
Absolutely — I think you're entirely right — it's always shocking to me to see queer people who grow up in a world that mostly wants us to die or disappear, growing up to want to be part of that same violent heteronormative, racist, classist, misogynist world without changing it!
It’s all about fitting in, isn’t it? Rejection is a painful thing, and it’s hard not to want to be accepted. I see this in the Black Community too. Rich or middle black folks who avoid anything that they consider too much a part of the Black culture. There are just certain things that is considered embarrassing. Storefront churches, fish fries and the like. And from what I see in your book, in the Gay community, certain things are somewhat frowned on: anonymous sex and the sex business for instance. And certain things are honored…as part of the new gay trend toward assimilation: notions of masculinity for instance? I mean.. that was one of the impressions I got.
So Many Ways to Sleep Badly is definitely portraying a queer world that doesn't fit into the smiling gay “we’re just like you” mentality — things like anonymous sex and sex work and gender transgression and political instigation are just givens to the narrator and the other characters, and I wanted to portray this world on its own terms, without explication or justification or some kind of simplified reversal where bad is good and good is bad — instead everything gets a bit messed up, including language and narrative and plot and voice and structure.
It’s understandable that people would want to fit in, but you’re right. Should they fit in at the cost of their own culture, at the cost of their own soul? As I said, I felt you were one who walks the borderlands. In many ways you are part of the larger culture: male, white, secular in your spirituality, not particularly rich. But you are also a survivor of incest, a bit of an eccentric in a world that says it likes eccentrics but really doesn’t, and a gay man who challenges other gay men. As for me, I’m a Black Christian woman. I’ve had my wars with blacks and with Christians and with both. So I understand where you’re coming from. There is a community of borderland walkers who rankle at the idea of exclusion because, to tell you the truth, something happened in our lives that make it hard to fit neatly in categories.
Yes, the borderlands, indeed — and, as someone who has grown up with certain expectations of what it means to be male and white and class-privileged, I think it's important to challenge the violence of those expectations, which includes the violence of sexual abuse at the hands of the people who are supposed to keep us safe. I like when you say "a bit of an eccentric in a world that says it likes eccentrics for really doesn't”– that's so so true, and I knew that early on, and I think it has helped to shape me in embracing an outsider status to challenge the hypocrisy of those on the inside. Although, speaking of insides, I identify as a genderqueer faggot and a queen, so there's certainly overlap with a gay male identity (like many of the things I do sexually), but to me “gay” has become a dead end, a commodified, consumerist identity and I'm more interested in flamboyance and resistance and celebration of difference.
This kind of thing makes us understand and befriend certain people we would not normally understand, I think. And it also makes us avoid certain types and categories the world would think we would fit neatly in. For instance, I’m a Bible-believing Christian so you probably already understand my opinion about your line of work. Yet, as someone who has found the world a very harsh place, I have to admit that I know many transgendered friends who also do your kind of work. Friendships, then, is often about the heart and often about belongingness and being at war with the larger culture.
I know – Bible-believing Christians love writers, I mean hookers! Transgendered hookers of the world unite, unite and take over — can we welcome you into our midst? And yes, yes — I do think friendship is often so much about finding and creating belonging and a safe place to challenge the larger culture.
While we’re at it, please explain your work as a sex worker. In the book there was the implication that the internet had changed sexual liaisons somewhat… made them about the immediacy of lust and longing and more of a comparative mode kind of thing. Explain why you chose that kind of job? Talent, skill, and love of the job?
Well, let's see, of course the book is a novel, although I will say that the narrator and I do share a few things in common, one of which is turning tricks. I originally became a whore because I wanted to make a living as far outside of the 60-hour workaday world as possible — I wanted to be able to support myself and still do the things that were important to me, writing and activism and friendships and building myself as an anti-assimilationist kind of gal, right? Now, what I'm saying about the internet in the book is more about recreational sex and less about sex-for-pay — and I think the internet has changed cruising in the immediacy of that type of sex, away from the intensity and the sudden intimacy of the moment and more around shopping shopping shopping — shopping is fine if you're looking for the right fit of pants, but it's a little more intrusive when it's the right kind of body or sex act.
Ah gee! I’m trying to think of how to respond to that. I’ll definitely say that you give a bold, honest answer. But moving on…I think I’m getting old or maybe I’m just cynical or maybe it’s the Christian in me but I kept thinking, “Dang! Here’s a true revolutionary, fighting the noble battle for mental and cultural peace on earth!” Some passages in the book, especially when you whine about assimilation feels like you’re all passionate revolutionary trying to create a noble society on earth. Do I sound too cynical?
I. don't think you sound cynical at all!
I think that’s why I felt your book had soul. It actually touches a universal need. Maybe we borderland walkers are more aware of a certain cultural and spiritual homelessness but I felt it as I read. I often wonder if many people are able to deal with “soul” when they see it in a work of art. Either it terrifies them or bores them or angers them. Or maybe they can’t really recognize it. Agree or disagree? And if you agree, why? Is it cultural? Is it a flight from pain? Is it something having to do with our concept of art and what art is meant to do?
With So Many Ways to Sleep Badly I wanted to abandon conventional plot structure that says our lives are neatly packed between beginning, middle, and end, that everything can and must be resolved, and so the structure relies more on voice and sound and texture and the repetition of form and space and reason and I think that's what you mean about soul. You have to enter this work on the narrator's terms, not your own, and some people are willing to do that.
All of my work is about trying to fight against cultural homelessness, trying to create some sense of hope in a world that really isn't very hopeful — I think we can recognize how horrible the things are around us, not get all delusional and fake-positive/everything’s-great, and still fight for some sense of belonging in the margins — the margins of the page, or the margins off the page.
I think it’s hard to create a book that shares one’s soul and that touches the soul of another because it requires a kind of fearless self-lacerating honesty, a bit of need, and a passion for truth. I mean there are memoirs that are self-serving or rationalizing or flawlessly beautiful…and yet… Your books are remarkably free from rationalizations. I love that.
Carole, "remarkably free from rationalizations" — that's beautiful, that's exactly what I'm trying to do.
Hey, I’m a truth addict, actually. Plus I’m a Christian. I aim for truth. But truth makes books like So Many Ways To Sleep Badly a hard read. Because even those who are your allies and who walk the borderlands with you might not want to hear what you’re saying. Hey, we live in a world of pundits, alliances, cultural notions of identity, conformity, and arguments. And we’re also human. We want peace for ourselves and we don’t like to be challenged.
But without challenge, what's the point?
I smiled when I read one of the passages where you talked about the gay culture. I think I smiled because with a few changes here and there some of the stuff you were angry about – not sex issues– could be used against any culture that simply doesn’t want to see that it needs heavy self-examination. There’s often as much rage against the gay culture as against the wider culture. It must be so hard to be an outsider among outsiders. I mean, do gay folks challenge you about your stance on gay marriage?
Oh, you mean the fact that I think gay marriage is a dead end, that if we want cultural erasure then sure, gay marriage is on the right path, but otherwise what we really need to be fighting for is an end to marriage, period. I mean, marriage is tacky and outdated and oppressive — even middle-of-the-road straight people know that!
So yes, plenty of gay people would rather I disappear — I can guarantee you that! As far as my anti-assimilationist stance, so much of it is about accountability — straight people are not going to hold gay gentrifiers accountable for the violence they enact, right?
Sex pervades this book. As I said, I’m a Christian. I’ve had my battles with the Christian community, mind you. I mean, in many Christian romance husbands and wives aren’t even shown sitting on the same bed. And God help them if they are caught dancing. But I have to admit I started skipping sections. I just didn’t want sex scenes in my mind – we Christians flee from temptation, you know.
Well, if it was tempting I'll take that as a compliment!
I figure your book is written for the gay community but – and I know you’ll understand this and you’ll probably get a laugh out of it—it’s not the kind of book I could give to any of my gay evangelical friends and my Gays-for-life friends. And it’s not as if they are assimilationists but well, you can understand. They would think the type of sexual situations in So Many Ways To Sleep Badly was either sinful or should be kept hidden. I wouldn’t call them assimilationists because they have fought their own battles but they definitely have an idea about purity. And in many ways, prig that I am, I agree with them.
Purity and sin are not ideas that I entertain — what I'm trying to do is to portray the reality of sex in my life and the lives of people around me — I love writing about sex because it illuminates so much about the dangerous intersections of desire, love, power, intimacy, loss, anger — so much can be conveyed in a few simple gestures of boom boom boom.
I understand. Honesty. And sex is an important part of human life. Supposedly we think about sex several times a day, more or less. But writing about sex is always pretty iffy. There are all these different standards: honest sexual exposition, eroticism, romance, pornography.
Well, I guess I’m in the "honest sexual exposition" category — what I'm most interested in conveying is the messiness.
I have read books by gay and lesbian writers, books such as Julien Green’s Diary for instance. But they are often books where religion, sexuality, and truth meet. But I haven’t read much queer lit per se. So two questions. The first: Is your book typical of the genre? Honestly, I think my Christian evangelical gay friends are waiting for the Christian Book Publishers to come up with a lovely Janet Oke type prairie gay romance. Is there any hope for them soon?
Oh my God — and I do mean oh my God — I hope I'm not typical of anything! As for the gay Christian evangelical classic, well that's my next book, So Many Ways to Sleep Gladly!
(laughing) As I said, I was in tears as I read. And I was very angry. There is this verse in the Bible: “One sinner destroys much good.” Honestly, I wanted to take your father and all abusers and choke him. I’m sorry. I know he was your father and all but so much of your book is about a wounded and damaged life – the sleep issue, the sexual woundedness, the emotional pain– that well, I just got very upset. It’s a tough read and I keep wondering if I should finish it. But I like your writing style, and some parts are very funny. I’ll see if I can hold out to the end.
Oh, you can feel free to choke my father.
Do you realize how brave you actually were in this book? I mean the scene in which you described the overwhelming urge to have anal sex-masturbation sex in front of a mirror…. Even if some of us have had such sexual urges, no one I know would write it. Do you regret some of the honesty in the book?
Whenever there's something I'm afraid of, I realize oh, that's what I really need to write about. I want to reveal the most intimate details, because that's where people really connect across the lines of identity and culture and community. Writing about sex barely scares me at all anymore.
What are you working on now? It’s called Why are Faggots so afraid of Faggots?
Yes, that's my new anthology — an emergency intervention if there ever was one! I'm also working on a new novel, or I might even call this one nonfiction…
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Thank you so much for this interview, Mattilda!
Thank you, Carole.