Recently I walked into a party for a literary magazine, and the beautiful girl working the door was reading Bluets, Maggie Nelson’s 2009 prose poem about heartbreak and the color blue. It was a brilliant choice on the doorkeeper’s part; it’s hard to think of another book that functions quite as well as both announcement of identity and screening tool. Anyone who would say, “Oh my God, that book; I love that book,” to that girl would almost certainly have been worth talking to. In addition to the cult classic Bluets, Nelson is the author of eight other books that often span or mix genres, including the 2011 The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, a highly regarded work of criticism. Her latest, The Argonauts, finds her working in a number of modes at once, using myriad reference points at her fingertips to illuminate a story at once commonplace—Nelson describes falling in love and starting a family—and radical—Nelson falls in love and starts a family with a genderqueer artist who is transitioning physically at the same time that Nelson is pregnant with their first child.
I read The Argonauts when I was about four months pregnant and felt outsized gratitude for the book’s existence. What luck that one of my favorite writers was publishing a book about motherhood, family, love, birth, death, gender, and identity at the same time I was obsessively thinking about these things. Naturally, I leapt at the opportunity to talk to Nelson about her book, whether she ever yearns for fixity or definitions, and how to prepare for labor. (You can’t.) The following is an edited version of our exchange.
Do you consciously decide to alternate genres when beginning a new book? The Argonauts isn't the first of your books to defy or combine genres, but it is a very different kind of book from The Art of Cruelty.
It is solely by happenstance. It isn’t something I control too much or try to control; genre, for me, is determined by the unfolding of my interests, which are unknowable at a project’s start. For example, The Argonauts didn’t start out all that personal, whereas The Art of Cruelty actually did—I find my way to the right tone, idiom, form, or set of subjects as I bumble along. That said, I do sometimes feel exhausted with “personal” writing, whatever that means—I’m starting to tire seriously of the phrase. After putting something of that nature out into the world, I typically swear up and down to myself that the next thing is going to be totally scholarly and esoteric, to the point that no one will want to read or publish it, ever. This feels consoling to me, like a condition of possibility for going on.
I imagined something similar when initially setting out to write fiction; it seemed “safer” than “personal writing.” One quality of your writing that’s so inspiring and appealing is your openness; what you do, for me at least, is illuminate dark areas of thought and emotion and interrogate them, refusing to provide easy answers. But sometimes people need clear, that’s-how-it-is type answers. I’m thinking about little kids here or even graduate students. An older friend who identifies as a butch lesbian recently told me she wished that instead of identifying as trans or genderqueer, bio-women could feel more comfortable expanding the definition of what the word woman could mean. I had a hard time figuring out how to respond. Do you ever feel confused and exhausted and frustrated by thinking about these questions that have no answers?
I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever had a moment in which I believed that “sometimes people need clear, that’s-how-it-is type answers.” Not for little kids and certainly not for graduate students—save “You have to hold my hand in the parking lot” or “If you miss four classes, you won’t get credit,” etc. Maybe this is a matter of semantics because when it comes to gender, “how it is” is that it is a spectrum or, rather, a spectrum without binary poles. (If anyone needs a primer on this, I recommend biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling’s excellent Sexing the Body.) At the same time, your friend’s protest of what she perceives as a threat to / diminishment of the category of women need not be dismissed as foolhardy or simply retro. The other part is the implicit opposition of the categories of butchness and transgenderism, in which the trans subject is made to occupy the role that the butch occupied for many, many years, i.e., perceived as a profound and even reviled threat to lesbianism or feminism, a kind of villain to the cause. As Gayle Salamon puts it in her amazing Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality, the category of the butch is now undergoing an astonishing retroactive “disciplinary feminizing” in an attempt to conceptually distinguish it from transgenderism, i.e., “transmen attack and reject their bodies, but butches celebrate theirs…transmen want male privilege, but butches reject male privilege,” and so on. This line of thinking, while perhaps understandable under the pressures of a patriarchy, unfortunately leads us away from understanding what transgenderism has to teach / has in common with feminism and vice versa.
So, I guess that’s a really long and roundabout way of saying, “No, I don’t ever feel confused or exhausted or frustrated by thinking about difficult questions.” There are few questions in life that interest me that have definitive answers, as definitive answers tend to house a desire to put an end to thinking or talking, rather than to deepen or enliven it, to make sure it goes on.
I’m curious to hear more about your (dashed) hopes in moving to fiction; since it’s the one main thing I don’t write, it’s come to occupy some kind of mental repository of potential liberation…
It’s so exciting to think of you writing fiction, and I don’t want to say anything to puncture the potential liberation fantasy. I used a similar fantasy as an aid while I was writing a novel but ended up badly hurting and alienating someone I love anyway.
The Argonauts deals explicitly with the problem of writing about people you love and even describes showing your partner, Harry, an early draft of part of the book and getting some negative feedback. Harry’s voice is incorporated into the book. Did you feel curtailed creatively by this, and has the book had an affect on your relationship?
Yes, I would probably have to say I did feel creatively curtailed in some ways, though I know that’s a big no-no in the universe that holds writing as a heroically free state in which no one else’s feelings need apply. But I’m not sure that any work of nonfiction is actually written that way. Making sure Harry was (mostly!) OK with the book was simply the condition of possibility for its existence; we’re married, and a marriage really isn’t a good place to practice scorched-earth policies. I didn’t feel creatively curtailed at all, however, by the literal incorporation of Harry’s voice into the book—I actually felt this to be a smart, creative decision on my part. He didn’t request it, only allowed it! I pasted in pieces of an email he sent his close friends shortly after his mother’s passing. As far as the book’s effect on our relationship, it’s been good, I think. I can’t speak for him, but it does seem to me that his proximity to the subject, and to the book’s creation, has given him a deeper understanding of how curated, crafted, and considered autobiographical writing can be—how what appears to others as simply gut-spilling is often anything but. There may be bumpy moments in the book’s reception that I cannot foresee—there usually are, as you know—but in some real, profound sense, whatever anyone else says about the book will and must stand apart from his and my experience of it. We’ve turned the page, as it were.
Something that’s really almost haunted me since I finished The Argonauts is your depiction of your labor and birth. For starters, because it’s such an exquisitely well-rendered scene and your decision to juxtapose it with scenes from the end of a life made so much sense and was so devastating and riveting and…every effusive adjective ever, ad infinitum. But also because I’m pregnant. One thing in particular that struck me was how you made a joke about how some of the things you’d read about birth in a mainstream women’s publication about pregnancy that people were concerned about were things you associated with good sex. But then, even for you, someone who appreciates a little bit of recreational pain/loss of control here and there, labor was still unprecedented.
This, I realize, is not a question. But can you elaborate more on your experiences of childbirth and how it affected the writing of this book?
Oh my goodness, what to say about labor to someone who is pregnant right now with a first baby! You are so much braver than I to even go there. When I was pregnant, other people’s labor stories took on this outsized, talismanic role in my psyche. By the end, I felt totally phobic about taking any of them in, which is hard since being pregnant seems to give other people the uncontrollable urge to tell you their labor stories or to tell you horror stories they’ve heard about others and/or give you advice that may or may not be desired and so on. …I remember a friend of mine who had given birth a year or two earlier telling me she had found watching videos of animals, such as horses, giving birth on YouTube to be really helpful, as it underscored for her how natural the whole thing was. One afternoon at about 35 weeks, I gave it a try and instantly felt like I’d made a big mistake. I then tried to erase the experience by Googling something like “videos of really good human labor experiences” and watching a few more videos that also really freaked me out. My conclusion was that there is not much in the visual representation of another person’s labor that helps one—or that helped me, I should say—prepare for what is essentially a deeply internal experience.
I like your word, unprecedented. Labor just isn’t like anything else. Since our culture is so genitally focused, I mistakenly thought that all the pain action was going to be vaginal or vulval—you know, the whole “How can a baby’s head come out of that smallish place?” question. I didn’t really have a clue what a contraction was or what one would feel like until I had my first, and then I was like, oh shit. I’m in for it. But what would it have mattered to “know” what one felt like beforehand (which is also an impossibility)? I’m not sorry for whatever labor prep classes I took, but I do think, in the end, that labor is something you can’t prepare for, in a fundamental sense. Maybe that takes a load off you—I don’t know. And obviously the truth of that statement depends on how you’re hoping to do it—planned C-section, epidural, at home, in a birthing center, in a hospital, assisted, unassisted, and so on—there are so many different ways. I think all the prep can be really good, even necessary, for the pregnant person, but let’s just say all the lovely flute music Harry and I had downloaded onto an iPod to play during my labor never got played.
Some people might not think it very cheery to conclude a discussion of labor, as I do in the book, by saying that it brings one into contact with death, but that was indeed my main take-away, as they say. It doesn’t really matter what you feel about dying—one day you’re going to do it. Likewise, you can feel all kinds of ways about labor, you can download all the flute music you want, but in the end, there’s going to be a raw, bodily imperative to get the baby out, and you’re going to do it. In both cases, that’s awesome, in the original sense of the word.