Over the last five years, Melissa Febos has chronicled her attempt to reconcile her identities as a queer woman, lover, reader, writer, sister, and adopted daughter. The (exhaustive) investigation is at the heart of her second book, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury, February 2017). The work is a collection of essays that examines abandonment on the corporeal and historical level in Febos’s romantic and familial relationships. The essays trace her experiences as the reluctant daughter of a sea captain, queer woman, and sister to a bipolar brother, and reading the collection is an act of witnessing her struggle to come to terms, not simply a consideration of her reflections.
Since her first memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), Febos has established herself as a gifted writer with deep reserves of empathy and a bottomless hunger for personal truth. She’s written for numerous publications about personal, literary, and political topics. Her prose is exciting and inviting because it feels both raw and lived in. Over the course of two months, Febos and I exchanged electronic letters about sacrifice, love, sexual politics, and turning the lived experience into a readable one.
—Eric Farwell for Guernica
Guernica: How did you manage to get comfortable with publicly chronicling your private life?
Melissa Febos: I’m still not comfortable doing it! But the process of writing and the process of being seen/read are distinct. The quote I most often repeat to my students is Chekhov’s: that the job of the writer is not to solve the problem, but to state the problem correctly. I think our duty to chase the problems is implicit. I didn’t ever make a choice to be a writer who details her private life; I just followed, as you said, the loss or disruption that drove me to dig, to write, to try to name something.
My propensity for dissociation really works for me in this way. It feels like a trick that I play on myself over and over, that I keep falling for. I often don’t realize how personal an essay is until it’s published and the content is mirrored back to me in the response it provokes. I only know how to understand things this way, by writing and naming, by subjecting it to narrative structures. Writing is a private act, and therefore a space where I can put words to the things about which I can’t speak. Conversations about my published work are often the first conversations I have about their content. It’s kind of a fucked up way to start an intimate conversation, like spending five years writing a note and passing it to the world.
Guernica: Some of the events in the book happened fairly recently—including the romantic relationship and the reunion with your birth father. Was the book in progress at the time, and should writers have some distance before they write about their experiences?
Melissa Febos: I think it’s often smart for writers to wait before they write about major life experiences—a certain amount of objectivity is necessary to see yourself clearly. Perspective changes over time, and for self-reflective folks, it usually gets smarter as we detach emotionally from what happened. It took me decades to write about my early life with any clarity! That said, we are also racing our own memories, which erode over time and have a tendency to arrange things into a narrative that we’re comfortable with. I wanted to write about those recent experiences while they were still hot, so that I would have access to their immediacy, because so much of understanding them was about recognizing that heat, how it galvanized and scorched me, how hungry it was.
I’ve never pursued a life experience for writing material. Rather, my writing process is one of interrogating those decisions through analysis and art, and uncovering their more complex motives. If I’m in the midst of going through something really painful or incomprehensible, I tell myself that I can write about it later and figure it out; I can make it into something beautiful or useful. I get in deep and when it feels too painful; I promise myself that I’ll perform some kind of artistic alchemy on it later, as a way of rationalizing my own suffering or misguided choices.
Guernica: Comedian Hannibal Buress has said that due to the nature of his craft, he doubts his ability to succeed or be present in a relationship. He feels like he’s always looking for the bit during an important moment or breakup. Do you relate to that at all?
Melissa Febos: In some ways the characteristics that make one a successful writer can make one a failure at relationships. Partly by nature, partly by cultivated habit, my response to a lot of provocation is to detach. I have a habit of thrusting myself into the middle of some chaos—be it love or sex work or addiction—and then stepping outside myself to watch what happens. I tend to retrieve the emotional experience later, when I’m writing about it. This is good for the writing and has made me braver (though it’s not really bravery—more like a tolerance or willingness to stick things out), but it is a kind of self-abandonment, and an abandonment of whomever is sharing the experience with me.
Part of what was so notable and compelling about the relationship that I write about in Abandon Me is that I was unable to detach. I couldn’t stop, and I couldn’t stop feeling it. It was like being on a runaway train for two years. As a result, I abandoned most everything else in my life, but it was an unprecedented kind of rapture—excruciating but also spectacular. Maybe this is always a draw to people whose primary defense against pain is to detach: we seek out those powers that won’t let us abandon ourselves, that insist upon their transformation. It can be destructive, but it’s also a kind of self-preservation. Detachment halts growth, reroutes affect, and sometimes we need to just feel something as it is happening, feel ourselves being annihilated or reshaped by it.
Guernica: Is detachment a necessary skill for a writer to have, or does it have its limitations?
Melissa Febos: What’s more interesting to me is the emotional dynamic that this detachment cultivates between the writer and her subject. After so many years of examining my life experiences on the page, I’ve developed this kind of surgical inner eye. That is, I think inside every writer is a tiny stenographer, always working. Even when I’m not planning to write about something, I’m still taking notes, still thinking diagnostically on some level. I can’t help it. And sometimes, I can consciously retreat into that interior role, become more observer than participant. This moving between points of view, or levels of consciousness, or degrees of emotional involvement is something I did even as a child. It’s an instinct that has served me well, and that I’ve also spent some time working to undo in therapy. But writing has co-opted it in this very productive way, turned dissociation into sublimation.
If we are lucky, we find ways to evolve our earliest defenses, to make them work for us as we grow instead of becoming liabilities. My response to intensity, fear, conflict, and change is often to detach. This can be really limiting—it’s hard to absorb things and be changed if you’re always bailing. My writer mind functions as a kind of intermediary between me and the experiences and feelings that I might bail on otherwise. It gives me some breathing room, so that I can retreat a little but not leave, so that I can stay in the room with my own dark parts, my own madness, my past mistakes, my unknowing, my birth father (whom I describe meeting in this new book), or any other frightening subject. This happens while I’m living, and it happens again on the page, where I am often much braver about facing and feeling things. It’s easiest for me to stay when I can literally walk away from it whenever I want and have that total privacy to feel my own shame or humiliation or anger, or whatever other repellent thing I avoid in mixed company.
At this point, I’ve basically synchronized my art-making process with my process of living, and they are inextricable.
Guernica: Nonfiction writers have the luxury, generally speaking, of bending the truth. How do you navigate those boundaries, and to what extent does authenticity matter?
Melissa Febos: Authenticity matters a lot. But what kind of authenticity? Who is the judge of this? Human history is an endless string of (mostly white) men claiming themselves the expert on authenticity, on the truth of what happened. One person’s “authenticity” is often the erasure of others’. I’m not trying to avoid the question, but I think it’s a problematic question, and one that my book takes for its subject in many ways.
I’m not opposed to memoirists or essayists manipulating the “facts” or their memories to an extent in order to tell a good story and get at a greater authenticity, or even to make an argument. It is never the object of the memoirist or essayist to set down a record of what happened. That is autobiography (among other forms). Essayists and memoirists are after something else, a larger truth that depends upon our curation and interpretation of the facts. And in the most basic sense, if we didn’t leave out most of what happened, most memoirs would be unreadable.
The fabric of the book is made of my memory and thoughts, the memories and thoughts of those I interview, the texts that I bring into conversation with those, the sounds and shape of the words I choose to represent them. I consider it a finite set of materials and my job to weave these fibers together so that they make sense, become some resilient cloth strong enough to hold a greater truth about human drive, human frailty, human love. Those finite materials could be remixed in infinite ways, in contradictory ways, and that doesn’t mean they aren’t “authentic.”
Guernica: Why do you think readers care so much whether or not something is “accurate”?
Melissa Febos: I think it’s impossible to do anything on the page but create the world as it exists for me, or at least a strand of it. But my goal is more accurately to demolish the “reality” that I experience on the first go-around. Our psyches are always designing narrative from our experience in real time, and that narrative is usually the one we find most comfy. My writing process is one of interrogating that instinctual narrative. I want to unpeel the cozy layers and get at a different kind of honesty, one that might offend my self-image, or my image of others, or of anything. I think this kind of critical undressing is so important—especially right now, for me as writer and human, and for us as a country and species. We must resist the narrative that comforts us in favor of one that feels more “true.” Even if it is terrifying, as truth often is.
I think our obsession with accuracy overlaps our obsession with authenticity. We all crave certainty. We all lust for an objective truth. We come by it honestly; it’s what we justify in the name of that idea that can be so dangerous. But the kind of truths I’m getting at are always part invention. Truth is something we discover, or uncover, as much as it is something we build. It’s impossible to reconcile our different truths sometimes—so much suffering has come out of trying to do so. The thing to aim for is a peaceful coexistence. This idea has been around forever. It is at the basis of most spiritual traditions, underneath all the dogma. It is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s test of a “first rate intelligence”—”the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Our survival depends on our ability to do this—as individuals, as a country, as a species. Of course, many already have not survived, and many more will not survive. The struggle and failure to do this is one of mankind’s most prevailing legacies.
Guernica: LGBTQI stories have moved into the mainstream in recent years but have historically been released independently or by small presses. Is your book a “queer book,” and do major houses hesitate to take on so-called nontraditional works like this one?
Melissa Febos: Queer people have always been writing their stories. And queer people, especially those of us who grew up before there were queer characters on television or in the media as anything other than victims or protesters or AIDS victims, we have been finding those stories. I found Audre Lorde, Rita Mae Brown, Sarah Schulman, James Baldwin, Jean Genet, Dennis Cooper, Jeanette Winterson, and so many others without the help of the mainstream media, before the internet existed. Thank God. Yes, my book is a queer book. And it’s mostly luck of timing that got me a book deal with a publisher willing to promote it as such. The publishing industry is an industry in a country founded on patriarchal, heterosexist, and white-supremacist values. No matter how feminist or queer the individuals acquiring books may be, it’s incredibly hard for them to buy anything without some precedent for sales. Even when I began this book, about five years ago, no one was really interested in strange essay collections, let alone queer ones. Not my own agent, not editors. It took the success of Leslie Jamison and Maggie Nelson’s books for mine to sell the way it did. That said, I am incredibly grateful to Bloomsbury (an independent publisher, if a big one) for never asking me to make my book into a memoir, into one single narrative, as I think most publishers would have done. It is a queer book in both subject and form, and they recognized it as such.
Most industries follow the market rather than direct or define it, and so we see what we have always seen, with minute shifts over time. I work with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts—who conducts the count every year—and it’s easy to see what we have felt all our lives when you gather the hard numbers: how deeply ingrained white heterosexual maleness is into our literature. These systems were built by and around men, and without someone at the top taking a risk, no radical change can happen. It bubbles up slowly and incrementally from the underground. Three women’s movements paved the way for my book. Civil-rights activists and queers who spent their lives heaving against these institutions before I was born paved the way for my book. My access to the resources needed to become a writer and to write this book are privileges given me by my family, my whiteness, and the work of all those people who didn’t have the opportunities I have had. RuPaul’s Drag Race is not a whim of cultural taste, it is the result of centuries of struggle, just as my book and others that represent the queer experience, the experience of people of color and differently abled people are hard won. It’s both a gift and a tragedy to see how easy this is to take for granted in my students, who came of age with a black president, seeing queer people depicted on television. Mostly, after this recent election, it is chilling to see such complacency. I hope that a happy side effect of the ugly shift we are seeing in our politics and our culture is that it wakes them up. The changes we have seen in my lifetime have been a long, long time coming and are just blips on the surface of a shift that has so far to go in terms of parity and visibility and equal access to resources. Honestly, I don’t think we as a species will be around long to enough to see its end. I think we will waste our resources before many folks even get access to them.
Guernica: The book is an attempt to reconcile your identity–your sexuality, your Puerto Rican father, your indigenous heritage, and the family and historical structures that delivered these to you. What is that process like for you, at work and in your private life?
Melissa Febos: I have always had a kind of split focus when it came to my identity, between myself as I exist in the world and to others and the way I existed to myself. In the book, I describe being frequently asked, What are you? I never had a good answer for this. At least, I never had a single answer, and I thought the two were synonymous. That is, I was raised by my Puerto Rican father, called my grandparents Abuela and Abuelo, and even physically resembled my father (whom I call The Captain in the book). I was adopted so young and loved so well that I would often forget that he and I were not biologically related. On the other hand, I had this birth father out there—a man to whom I was related by blood, but little else. I knew that he was an addict and that he had Native blood. These were facts that I carried with me but did not know how to assimilate into my “identity.” When people asked me, What are you? it felt like any answer I gave would feel like a part-truth, part-untruth. Similarly, I am queer, I am a feminist and a former sex worker, a bottom and a boss, a half-blood and full-love sibling, a college professor and high-school dropout—which is to say, a lot of things that we are told don’t go together, aren’t so easily categorized on the same shelf, or in the same person. So, publicly, I felt made up of shards. I was not one thing, so I was nothing.
Inside myself, however, I was entirely whole. These pieces were inextricable from each other. Abandon Me is largely about the process of bringing that complete self into the world. I had to break myself apart in love to get there. I had to go find my birth father. I had to find the limits of myself in some extreme ways. It is the story of that journey, and its primary argument is: you can be many disparate things and still be whole. I learned that I don’t need to compromise my wholeness to appease our society’s need for clean distinctions. I come from Puerto Ricans, Natives, Italians, feminists, hustlers, addicts, artists, workers, poor folks, immigrants, intellectuals, lovers, and fighters—I have been formed by colonization, by addiction and erasure—by others and by self. The blood of both the colonized and the colonizers runs through me, as it does most of us. It was taught to me, and to all of us. It makes sense to me that the book itself took so many collaged forms, invented itself as I was writing it. As these parts of me are all in conversation with each other, my stories are in conversation with other texts—children’s stories, the Bible, psychologists and philosophers, scientists and poets. It has an integrity that isn’t compromised by its variance; it is defined by it. Airing all of this is scary. I have no desire to “claim” any kind of identity, only to claim the self I have inhabited all my life. When I expressed my fear about doing this to my mother, she thought for a minute, and then said, (very wisely, I think): “It sounds like a very American story.”