The End is the beginning: an interview with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
"I think that the queer voices that mean something to me are almost always shut out of mainstream gay and straight discourse."
by Gregg Shapiro
Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.
The year 2013 is looking like it might be an important one when it comes to queer memoirs, with books by Barrie Jean Borich, Rigoberto González and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore at the forefront. Sycamore's non-traditional memoir, The End of San Francisco (City Lights Books, 2013), flows from stream of consciousness to rant to stage dialogue style. A cross between an activist handbook and a cautionary tale about activism, it is a queer travelogue with stops in a number of LGBT-friendly metropolises along the way. Sycamore also tackles familial relationships, biological and chosen, and the disappointments that can occur. A Lambda Literary Award finalist, Sycamore spoke with me about his work in March 2013. (Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore will be at Women & Children First on Clark Street in Andersonville on Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m.)
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) Mattilda, I want to begin by congratulating you on being a Lambda Literary Award finalist for your book Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? What did being a finalist mean to you?
MBS: (Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore) Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? is also an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book, and I'm really excited by all the attention it's receiving. It was actually a hard book to get published, so it's gratifying to see reviewers, librarians, booksellers, awards judges and other readers relating to both its strident stance and the vulnerability of the essays by 30 different authors inside. I meant this book as an emergency intervention in the morass of consumerist gay culture, and I really feel like it is making an impact.
GS: Did you have a target readership in mind when writing your new book The End of San Francisco?
MBS: Writing has always been the one thing I've had access to in order to process and understand my life and express the worlds and the contradictions I see around me, the perils and possibilities. I didn't write The End of San Francisco for a target audience. I wrote it because I needed to, in order to try to understand this dream of a radical queer community that keeps letting me down, over and over again and why do I keep believing, anyway?
GS: As someone who has written fiction and non-fiction, why did you choose to tell this story in the form of an unconventional memoir?
MBS: I wanted to make this story as vulnerable as possible. I think that conventional memoirs adhere to a formulaic narrative, and I wanted to resist that tidy linear path, but at the same time this book obsesses over my formations, and their undoing. I keep circling around the moments that have made me — socially, politically, sexually, emotionally, ethically — and for me that's what makes it nonfiction. Even though it's structured more like an experimental novel — I wanted to maintain the uncomfortable moments, the contradictions, the places where my analysis fails me. I edited the whole thing 15 times, but it was important for me to maintain the feeling of spontaneity.
GS: Would it be fair to say that one of your roles as a writer is to give a voice to an unheard population?
MBS: I think that's fair – I think that the queer voices that mean something to me are almost always shut out of mainstream gay and straight discourse. It's important to me to break down the fence that separates those that matter from those that don't.
GS: A few times in the book you veer away from traditional prose to a script/dialogue format. When having the various people speak did you have any concerns about the unreliability of memory?
MBS: That's exactly what I wanted to highlight. I wanted to add these other voices to my own memory, to challenge my voice but also to infuse it with more layers. It's my story, but it's affected by so many others.
GS: In the chapter that shares its title with the book, you wrote, "We were the first generation of queers to grow up knowing that desire meant AIDS meant death…" Would you say that being a part of that generation had the greatest impact on you than anything else that occurred in your lifetime?
MBS: I'm glad you're calling attention to that line. To me it's a really crucial place in the book where I talk about this "we" of queer freaks and outsiders and whores and vegans and anarchists and dropouts and activists trying to survive in the face of so much death, both internal and external. I think that's had as much impact on me as anything else, yes, that and growing up as an incest survivor and seeing how my parents' professional and financial "success" enabled them to camouflage their abuse so successfully. That's what enabled me to first realize the ways that Shining Happy People mythologies always camouflage harm.
GS: You write about the outsiders' need to assimilate. Do you fault the LGBT community for trying?
MBS: I do. The way I see it, assimilation is violence. The violence of arresting homeless queers for getting in the way of happy hour. Of evicting people with AIDS and seniors in order to increase property values. Of pushing everyone aside who doesn't belong instead of making more space for those on the margins. It makes me so sad to see marriage and military inclusion championed as the dominant goals of the so-called "LGBT movement" — we need to get back to fighting for gender, sexual, social and political self-determination for everyone. As a start.
GS: You cover a lot of ground in the book, which begins in upper NW Washington DC and progresses through Boston, Providence, Seattle, New York and San Francisco, giving the book the feel of a travelogue. Do you ever want to settle in one place or do you see yourself continuing to wander?
MBS: Since the book ended, I even lived in Santa Fe for a year, oh my – to tell you the truth, I would love to settle in one place, but I'm not yet sure where that place is. I lived in San Francisco for 14 years total, but 10 years in a row from 2000 to 2010. I really did think it was my home for a while, but then it let me down in such brutal ways. Now I'm in Seattle – I hope it works out: I'd like to feel like I have a home base.
GS: In the chapter "What We Were Creating," you write about the Wall Street Journal interview about "the end of San Francisco as a place where marginalized queers could try to figure out a way to cope." In truth, the same thing was occurring in queer neighborhood across the country – NYC, Chicago, Boston, L.A., Minneapolis and others. Do you think that there was anything that could be done to slow or prevent it, other than the methods that you and your allies employed?
MBS: What breaks my heart the most is that so many gay neighborhoods were formed initially because queers didn't have spaces where they could express themselves, where they could find one another for sexual merrymaking and risk-taking on their own terms. But what has happened in cities across the U.S. is that these same gay neighborhoods now police the borders so that only those willing or able to conform to upper-middle-class white norms are allowed. Can you imagine how different these places could be if homeless queer youth, trans people, people with disabilities, seniors, welfare queens, migrants, if all these people were at the center? I wish that gay people with power and privilege would actually make this dream into a reality.
GS: The book begins and ends with your biological family, which is an interesting way to frame what occurs between the pages, particularly because incest and confrontation are central to the story. Do you know if any of your family members have read the book or if they plan to read it?
MBS: My mother had a particularly interesting response. She said that because of the way I write without the conventional boundaries of plot structure, the separation between what happens in the book and herself as a reader wasn't there. She said she felt immersed, like she was in a movie. This is in spite of her unwillingness to acknowledge the abuse that frames the story, her own role or my father's. Still she was able to appreciate the writing on the terms I intend, and I find that kind of exciting.
GS: Have you begun thinking about or working on your next book?
MBS: Absolutely! My next book is a novel called Sketchtasy, which takes place in Boston in 1995 and `96, which was around when I lived in Boston and I was basically a druggie clubkid. I already have about 300 pages of a first draft, and I'm finding it fun to revisit that time period, in all of its wildness and suffocation.