The poet and cultural critic on gender fluidity, the politics of motherhood, and the expansive potential of the queer movement.
“A paradox is more than the coexistence of opposing propositions or impulses,” Maggie Nelson writes at the conclusion of her 2011 book of criticism, The Art of Cruelty, an exploration of the ethics of aestheticizing violence. “It signals the possibility—and sometimes the arrival—of a third term.” French semiotician Roland Barthes took up such a third term, and Nelson describes his concept of the Neutral this way: as “that which throws a wrench into any system…that demands, often with menacing pressure, that one enter conflicts, produce meaning, take sides, choose between binary oppositions…that are not of one’s making, and for which one has no appetite.”
Nelson has no appetite for binary oppositions; she is hungry for paradox. In her prolific early career (four books of poetry, five books of nonfiction) she has continually occupied the interstices of complex, contradictory language and ideas. Writing fluently across registers—from the lyric to the procedural, from the scholarly to the vernacular—Nelson folds personal and often confessional narratives into probing critical and theoretical inquiries.
While The Art of Cruelty brought Nelson mainstream recognition, she has been a much-admired figure in literary circles since her 2009 book Bluets, which navigates the deeply personal pain of heartbreak through a philosophical, cultural, and historical investigation of the color blue.
In her latest work, The Argonauts (forthcoming from Graywolf in May 2015), Nelson leans on another Barthes formulation as extended metaphor and point of return. Caught in the early throes of a love affair, Nelson utters I love you to her partner Harry during sex, the words “tumbling out of [her] mouth in an incantation.” A few days later, “feral with vulnerability,” she presents her new lover with a Barthes passage that references the Argonauts of Greek mythology, who had to replace every part of their ship, the Argo, over the course of their difficult voyage. Just as they continued to call their ship Argo even after its total reconstitution, the phrase I love you is imbued with “inflections which will be forever new” each time it is spoken. “I thought the passage was romantic,” Nelson writes. “You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.”
Ideas of nomination and physical change are particularly apt here given the nature of Nelson’s partnership with Harry, which serves as an emotional center and structural scaffolding for the text. Several years into their relationship, Nelson becomes pregnant as fluidly gendered Harry undergoes top surgery and begins injecting testosterone. With bodies in flux, who are they to themselves and each other? “In other words we were aging,” Nelson writes, in a line that reads both earnest and tongue-in-cheek.
The Argonauts is a book about representation. Language is a limited tool, Nelson admits, but it’s the one she wields, and therefore it must serve. “Words change depending on who speaks them,” she writes. “One must become alert to the multitude of possible uses, possible contexts, the wings with which each word can fly.” It is also a book about family. For Nelson, this means her biological family (including a fraught relationship with her mother), the new family she forges with Harry and their children, and the philosophers, artists, and theorists she refers to as “my queer intellectual family, my feminist family.”
In person (or Skype’s approximation), Nelson is warm and funny. During our conversation last month, I expressed disgust for the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey, which I’d seen a week earlier. Nelson was sympathetic. “At first I was like, whatever delivers the kink far and wide, great!” she said. “But it doesn’t seem like true perversity—it seems like normative ideologies stuffed into perverse outfits or something.” In the film, the (anti)heroine falls in love with a sadistic billionaire. “Some gnarly capitalist?” Nelson said, rolling her eyes. “That to me is super not hot! Super not hot!”
As we spoke about queer family-making, identity politics, and the shifting sands of gender, Nelson was simultaneously incisive and eager to interrogate her own logic. “I don’t always know,” she said at one point. “I don’t always get it right. So that’s a form of self-inquiry I feel like I have to perpetually perform.”
Maggie Nelson’s self-inquiry may be a performance, but it is not a solipsistic one. “I feel grateful for the kind of ongoingness of conversations I’m able to have,” she told me, “in public, and with friends, and also in my own home.”
—Ariel Lewiton for Guernica
Guernica: Both The Argonauts and your 2009 book, Bluets, are comprised of fragments, and integrate personal narrative with theory, history, and criticism. But it seems to me that the way you’re working through all of those elements is quite different in this new book.
Maggie Nelson: I do think of it as different from Bluets. I think of the unit of this book as anecdote, whereas in Bluets I thought of it as propositions. In Bluets, I was in pain, and it felt like banging my head against logic, or philosophy. That’s why it has the Pascal quote, “And were it true, we do not think all philosophy is worth one hour of pain.” But this book was really like family. Not just my family, but all the people I’m thinking through: Audre Lorde, Eve Sedgwick, all the people who are like my queer intellectual family, my feminist family. So I’m thinking with them.
I’ve lived a life in feminist and queer theory—teaching it, coming up with it—so it felt like the first time I was reckoning directly with that in print. It felt to me like this wasn’t going to be a very personal book, it was just going to be reckoning with these thoughts and ideas. There was some personal stuff in there, but you know how things go—you show it to people and they go, “Cool, but tell me more about your life.” So I wrote more and more content that was “personal” and then I ended up structuring the book in a chronological fashion, from 2007 to 2013. So then its narrative arc became about housing this theory within a select period of time.
Representation is not good enough. And yet, it’s sometimes what we have to give as love.
Guernica: So writing about your nuclear family was almost an afterthought?
Maggie Nelson: Yeah, it’s a lot easier to write about people when you’re not living with them! Harry is a pretty private person, and I guess I never really thought I would write a book about him or our life together. I think he had contradictory feelings, like he simultaneously wanted a book about us and also didn’t. But the conflict that presented, hating what representation does to you, eventually became what the book is about. Representation is not good enough. And yet, it’s sometimes what we have to give as love. And that’s a problem. But staying silent because it’s a problem is not my game.
Guernica: Recently there have been a few articles in the New York Times that deal with genderqueer subjects, and the Times style guide does not allow the use of pronouns preferred by the trans or genderqueer community [like the singular their, xe, ze, hir]. So out of respect to their subjects, the writers of those pieces managed—impressively, I think—to write long-form features without using any pronouns at all. And the Times has come under fire for its policy. After reading your book, I realized that in the Times profile of Harry from 2008, the editors insisted that he choose a male or female pronoun. So he is “Ms. Dodge” throughout. How much is our ability to articulate constrained by the language systems that we have to use?
Maggie Nelson: The language has constraints, but in some ways, the connotation is where all the action is as much as the denotation. The denotation would be like, “What pronoun are you going to use?” But when I talk about context in the book, every genderqueer or trans person who uses a pronoun might feel it differently. Some people’s she or he, if it’s a trans she or he, is very solid, and they don’t want to be outed otherwise. For other people that’s not the case; it has more irony, and it’s always understood as queer.
I was trying to conjure an environment in which people could think about context, a space in which you’re given a relationship, but you’re not being handed the language, like, “Here’s the language by which I’d like to talk about this relationship.” The book is not pedagogical except as an experience.
Guernica: In an early anecdote from the book, you’re talking to a friend about how you don’t know what pronoun to use for Harry. Many parts of the book dealing with Harry and your relationship are in the second person—a direct address—but there are points later on where you use “he.” I’m curious about what that means to him, or to you.
Maggie Nelson: One of the reasons for the chronological structure of the book is that sometimes people can’t imagine being on the inside of something without a pronoun to use, but I wanted to depict that you can be in relationship to something without having it be nailed down. It can be, “I don’t know what to call it but I’m already in it.” The chronology there was very intentional.
I can’t speak for Harry, but I will say that I think everybody knows what it’s like to have strategic identifications throughout a day. Everybody code-switches, some people more than others. Everyone knows what it’s like to spend a day passing in certain environments. It’s really more about how we negotiate with others the things that may or may not be visible about ourselves. So it’s not just that I can’t speak for Harry because I don’t know things about him, but also because these are not stable entities.
The truth is that we are all changing all the time to each other. Anybody who’s been in a relationship for more than a year, more than five years, knows this.
Guernica: The Argonauts charts a period in your personal life when bodies are changing dramatically. You’re pregnant at the same time that Harry is undergoing top surgery and injecting testosterone. In terms of your pregnancy, you describe feeling “a radical intimacy with—and radical alienation from—one’s body.” I’m interested in hearing more about this.
Maggie Nelson: Well I say this line: “In other words we were aging,” to sum up the passage about those changes. I’m not sure how to put this, but I didn’t want things like gender transition to be, like, the money shot in talking about bodily change. The truth is that we are all changing all the time to each other. Anybody who’s been in a relationship for more than a year, more than five years, knows this.
I remember that lovely passage in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, after the death of her husband, John, where she realizes that when he looked at her, he saw all of her faces back to when she was young, not just the old face. There’s that layering of selves that we can have with someone else across a long relationship.
I go to the baths, the Korean spa. I love looking at the maps of people’s bodies. The women have so many mastectomy scars and ectopic pregnancy scars and stretch marks, and all these things are amazing and wondrous to me. I guess I find it stranger not to attend to flux than to attend to it. But in a relationship it’s also scary—you don’t know where you’re going to end up when you go through change.
Guernica: You ask, “Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself?” And there’s this moment during your pregnancy, following an ultrasound, when you realize you’re carrying a differently gendered body inside of your own, a body who will become your son, Iggy. It seems really obvious, but I was fascinated by that idea—I’d never thought about it in that way before.
Maggie Nelson: Well, most of the bio men on earth were born to women, so it’s pretty ordinary! But I think because I had come from a matriarchy—my father died when I was young, and I only have a sister and a stepsister—when I told my mom and my sister that I was having a boy, they were both like, “That does not compute within our family relation!” It was like, “Girls only here!” Now that all seems very strange to me.
But it’s one of those amazing things of life that feminists have been dealing with for a long time. You may be Audre Lorde and a lesbian separatist… and then you have a son. I feel excited in that I think boys born to feminists have a leg up. At least, the ones I’ve met seem like they do. There’s something really vital about that exchange. I think I’d only imagined, beforehand, handing down a feminism to a young girl. But I’m newly excited by the challenge.
Guernica: The book is partly about your nuclear family. You spoke earlier about how it’s also in conversation with a different kind of family—the feminists, queer theorists, artists, and philosophers whom you refer to, after poet Dana Ward, as “the many-gendered mothers of my heart.” In a book that has so much to do with the fluidity of gender, that deals with the way that parenting can be untethered from gender roles, I found myself pausing at the word mother. Even if we move away from the idea of a mother being specifically female, the word still carries a distinct set of connotations. You wouldn’t say “the many gendered parents of my heart.” What does motherhood mean to you personally, now that you’re a mom? And from a theoretical standpoint, can we talk about motherhood, or mothering, in ways that are not gendered?
Maggie Nelson: I don’t want to just take the easy way out and plead paradox, but I guess that’s what it is to me. Not to be too doctrinaire, but we live in the patriarchy! And therefore anything explicitly associated with the female gender, including motherhood, needs to be defensively claimed, because it’s either devalued or sentimentally idealized, but not supported. I so thoroughly believe that female human beings have worth that I don’t feel the need to argue it, but I think that there’s a part of me that very specifically wants to make space for those ideas to be centralized, if only for the moment.
I know that a lot of feminist fears about the trans movement have been, “Wait, we never got to the part where we focus on women! We tried for a minute, but we don’t want to lose the category all of a sudden. We haven’t heard yet from the females with children called mothers, we haven’t heard yet from all these groups!”
On the one hand I’m very sympathetic to that, but the category of Women or Mothers, any of these categories, are on shifting sands and always have been. Denise Riley, whom I quote in the book, says, “On such shifting sands feminism must stand and sway.” And I think it’s that standing and swaying that’s really integral. Yes, I’m writing about motherhood, but I bristle a little bit, especially living with someone whose parenting falls between the cracks of what the culture is ready to recognize as mothering or fathering, but who most certainly is an excellent parent.
When I bristle at talking about something that’s called motherhood, I have to figure out within myself what I’m bristling at or from. Internalized matrophobia? Internalized sexism? Or for good solid queer reasons, on the other hand? I don’t always know. I don’t always get it right. So that’s a form of self-inquiry I feel like I have to perpetually perform. The book tries to perform that by putting forth a lot of different propositions about these questions. The idea is to exist in a space where you’re taking the time to hear a birth story or taking the time to think about sodomitical maternity, but you’re also getting the space to think about acts of ordinary devotion or care without always tethering them back to being called “mothering” by people who are female, cis or bio-gendered human beings who bore children. It’s a balance.
Guernica: A lot of the theorists you draw from, and the other thinkers you’re engaging with, are of an older generation. They’re not your contemporaries.
Maggie Nelson: Put very nicely! [laughs]. Unfortunately, it’s probably more a sign that I dropped out of keeping up with academic theoreticians in 1994. Someone who read the book recently said, “I love how you’re not afraid to date yourself with the theorists that you mention.” That was a slightly less kind way of putting the question.
Guernica: Fair enough. Well, are there contemporary theorists, academic or otherwise, with whom you feel your beliefs resonate or are in conversation?
Maggie Nelson: I teach at an art school, and art is more my milieu than academics. Academic writing has a kind of one-upmanship quality about argumentation and it’s not my favorite mode to read. But I’ll read anything interesting that comes my way. There are people I really like: Sara Ahmed, Paul Preciado [formerly Beatriz Preciado], Gayle Salamon, Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten. But I don’t think that the conversation has fundamentally changed from the questions people were asking in the ’70s.
There’s this famous Sojourner Truth speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” that she gave to this white women’s caucus [in 1851] saying, You’re talking about women, but ain’t I a woman too? I’ve plowed fields, I’ve been whipped, and yet your notion of womanhood does not seem to include me. But ain’t I a woman?! Like I said before, the shifting and swaying of these foundational categories, they’re very old. They’ve been complicated in numerous ways, and the trans women conversation and complication is also not new, although there’s a lot more attention being paid now. Before they were talked about more in petri dishes, and now we’re talking about them in bigger environments.
I think kids growing up now, hopefully, will have more choices. It always annoys me when people ask me, “What do your kids think about your relationship or Harry’s gender identity?” And I’m like, “Well, now I know what you think!” Our kids just aren’t living in the same generation, and if they’re not introduced to those things as a problem, they won’t internalize them as a problem. Which isn’t to say they won’t meet bigotry in their lives. But I think Harry’s and my goal as parents is to have them meet that bigotry with a kind of astonishment. Like, “Wow, what an idiot you are that you don’t know what a genderqueer person is!”
I love teaching. My students tell me things I don’t know about what’s hip and current. Last week I was teaching feminism and queer theory, and my students were telling me what it meant to be on the asexual spectrum. Identifying as asexual or on the asexual spectrum is big for a lot of the students at my school. I was asking them a bunch of questions, and we were studying Foucault that day. So what I had to give them, in turn, was to say: “Let’s try to understand that when we say we have a thing called a sexuality, and then we name it, and then we make a spectrum… let’s just get under that and talk about what is a sexuality, and how did it come about that we think we have one, and what do we gain and lose?”
And one of my students said something really beautiful. She said, “I think that labeling yourself has its bad parts, but it’s also a way not to feel broken.” And I thought, that is kind of the perfect way of saying it.
Guernica: When it comes to how we form alliances, and how we work for justice, we can’t accomplish very much by shedding all identities and standing alone. When does it become strategic to adopt a particular kind of identity?
Maggie Nelson: Absolutely. One of the best books I read recently is called Golden Gulag [by Ruth Wilson Gilmore], about the California prison system. It’s kind of a profile about this group called Mothers Reclaiming Our Children, Mothers ROC. Those mothers may not always be identifying as mothers every moment of their life, but, just like Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, there have been many maternally-based nodes of resistance. I’m not going to berate people for organizing under these principles. I think they’re incredibly effective and useful. I don’t have a knee-jerk anti-identitarian bone, while at the same time I’m completely interested in what lies beyond identity politics.
And labels can be fun! Some people are like, “As a card-carrying bear, where I also have a little bit of fairy in me…” People have fun collaging these; there’s a fun people have with their identifications. The irony of them can be lost if you’re just wholeheartedly anti-identitarian.
No one lives a pure life—there’s no tool without blood on it.
Guernica: Your work highlights various systems of oppression, including capitalism. In The Argonauts, you draw explicit parallels between gender, sexuality, and commodification, whether it’s quoting Beatriz Preciado on the “pharmacopornographic era,” or Judith Butler on “taking on a gender as a kind of consumerism.” You talk about the frustration among queer activists who sought to dismantle these oppressive systems, only to be faced with, as you write, “the assimilationist, unthinkingly neoliberal bent of the mainstream GLBTQ+ movement, which has spent fine coin begging entrance into two historically repressive structures: marriage and the military.”
Maggie Nelson: One rough paraphrase of queer thought might go: Queer, pervy sex is so non-normative and so exciting, and these relations have to fray patriarchy and capitalism just because they’re not accepted by it. But the people who felt like that have been so demoralized to see this clamoring for assimilation.
I live near Pasadena and there’s an Apple store here. Right outside the store are people from HRC [Human Rights Campaign], the mainstream gay and lesbian rights organization. As soon as you go into the Apple store they’re like, “Do you have time for gay rights!?” And of course, if you stop, it’s just about marriage. I always feel like I’m in this vortex: The Apple Store—Do you have time for gay rights?—It’s all about marriage!—The Apple Store!
I think the crushing sense of normativity—that gay rights means this, in front of the Apple store—can be so hard to take! People have been joking, saying, “Oh, we’re in a really transy moment,” calling it “transdy” [a portmanteau of trans and trendy], because of shows like Transparent, and the New York Times finally getting with the program. Yet it’s always the same. Is it exciting to have a codified identity, which then gets a codified set of rights and recognitions and visibility? Are we supposed to take it from there, within the same system? Or are we trying to upset the table before we want a place at it?
Of course, the problem is that no one lives a pure life—there’s no tool without blood on it. Harry and I got married. My smart friend Jack Halberstam, who’s a queer theorist, would say to us, “No unjust system ever changed by joining it! That’s an ironclad rule.” And I totally believe that’s true. On the other hand, we have these two kids to look after, and we’re not going to turn down things that are going to get us into emergency rooms or other situations—especially because Harry’s a genderqueer person. There’s just no telling what can come down the pike, in terms of how you’re recognized as a parent or partner.
But whenever you get involved with talking about rights, you’re talking about being a citizen. You’re talking about being a citizen in capitalism; you’re talking about what rights are granted to what identities, under what laws, and all that is a big mix. Marriage is, among many other things, a formality to channel capital through a family. And that’s why the big DOMA lawsuit was about paying too many taxes! “I wouldn’t have had to pay all these taxes if Theodora had been Theo”—that was the big tagline. It’s all about protecting assets.
I’m thrilled that the DOMA decision went the way it went. None of us stand pure outside the system; that would be preposterous. But you have to be mindful. You may get X, Y, and Z changes, but then you go, Oh shit! Everything’s still really unjust, and the planet’s still warming, and there are still radically poor people outnumbering the rich by 100,000 to one! So you have to think it through, which doesn’t mean standing apart from what’s on offer or what can be fought for, or appreciating with gratitude those rights that are fought for very hard by heroic people. It just means having a robust critique of those structures and systems in place at the same time.
We’re all human beings with bodily needs living within a system. We don’t need to prove that we’re not a part of the fabric of the culture in order to want to change it.
Guernica: Do you feel like your thoughts about gender and identity changed over the course of writing The Argonauts, or changed within the context of your relationship with Harry or with your children?
Maggie Nelson: I think writing kind of burns out the flaming question. Sometimes it might feel like when you’re living with certain paradoxes and they’re unarticulated, you feel pressure to choose. I feel more comfortable living in the paradoxes that I’ve named and laid out, whereas when I started they might have felt like real agitations. At least I see them more clearly after having sketched them for myself and made a place to stand in relationship to them that felt okay enough to last through the course of a book.
It would be weird if the effects of language were more than partial, if your whole life existed within your texts.
Guernica: Your book title, The Argonauts, derives from a passage by Roland Barthes about how every time you name something or articulate something, you can imbue that thing with an entirely different meaning, even if you’re still calling it by the same name.
Maggie Nelson: Of the many reasons the book is called what it is, it’s drawing attention to that naming. Naming the boat the Argo, naming the people on the Argo the Argonauts. In the parable that Barthes tells about it, all of the parts of the Argo can be changed so every part of the ship is no longer the original ship. And yet it’s still called the Argo, much like our bodies and selves are replacing all the time.
This is back to where we started, talking about writing. Some people who’ve read the book say, “Wow, you’re really down on language,” and I think, “If I were really down on language, I wouldn’t be trying to do this in language! I’d be doing something else!” I love language. It doesn’t bother me that its effects are partial. To me that is very sanity-producing. It would be weird if the effects of language were more than partial, if your whole life existed within your texts. That would be much scarier to me than language being an inadequate tool to represent.
In terms of being changed, I feel grateful for the kind of ongoingness of the conversations I’m able to have, in public, and with friends, and also in my own home.
A lot of the debates in the media—in the New York Times, and there was recently a long story in The New Yorker—they’re often put forward as old-school feminist who depends on category of Woman, up against new moment of trans feminism or trans women demanding access to women’s-only spaces, and they’re setting these extreme positions up against each other.
One thing I love about being with Harry is that we go back and forth, like sometimes he’s the old-school lesbian feminist arguing to me, and sometimes I’m the old-school feminist. Yet I feel like Harry and I are always at the same table, and most of my friends who disagree vociferously about nearly everything are all still at the same table. It doesn’t have to be these straw-man setups that the press loves, where people take each other down in a movement because they just can’t see each other’s point of view. That’s not how people live their lives, and it’s not how a robust, queer feminism is going to go forward into the future.
Guernica: So what seems like the next frontier for a robust, queer feminism? How does it move forward?
Maggie Nelson: In the book I talk about Eve Sedgwick and how on one hand she wanted queer to be so big of an umbrella that it basically encompassed everything from radical ecology to Latino immigration, activism, with a total loss of focus on gender and sexuality. And then on the other hand she said, if it ever loses that link, then it’s lost! Talk about paradox! For pragmatic reasons, for lessening of violence and for allowing people to live better lives, I think that the march forward for GLBTQ+ rights is a worthwhile one. But for me, hopefully the frontier is alliance-making across all these issues, whereby people can get over whatever prejudices they’re holding in order to keep their eyes on making livable lives for people in all states of vulnerability, no matter what their gender, sexuality, race, class, origin, whatever.
I think that alliance-building is happening. You have people like Dean Spade who are working really hard to reformulate issues, to say prison reform is a queer issue. And not just for the sake of queer prisoners, but as an umbrella looking at vulnerable populations and where they’re clustered, and how prison reform might address that. I think that kind of alliance-building is totally crucial going into the future.
What do you think?
Guernica: Intersectionality, man!
Maggie Nelson: Exactly. That’s the name of the game.
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