Interview with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Welcome to the first in a series of interviews of trans writers by members of the Small Trans Library! For this inaugural interview, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is accompanied by librarian Jess Bernard as she reads from and discusses her book The Freezer Door.

This segment was originally aired as part of Dublin Digital Radio’s ‘Queering the Airwaves’ programme on June 24th 2021. A transcript is provided below the audio, lightly edited for clarity.

Jay: Hi, I’m Jay. I’m just here to introduce the following show. We’re gonna hear from Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. Sycamore is the author of three novels, most recently Sketchtasy, one of NPR’s best books of 2018, and two nonfiction titles, including The End of San Francisco, winner of a Lambda Literary Award. She’s the editor of six nonfiction anthologies, including Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, and the upcoming Between Certain Death and a Possible Future: Queer Writing on Growing Up with the AIDS Crisis, which will be out in October. She’s currently working on Touching the Art, a book about her fraught relationship with her late grandmother, a visual artist from Baltimore.

Today, she’s going to read from The Freezer Door, a New York Times Editor’s Choice, one of Oprah Magazine’s Best LGBTQ books of 2020 and a finalist for PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. It’s about seeking connection amidst the erasure, loss, malaise and loneliness of gentrification, described by Andrea Lawlor as “a meditation on bodies sex, friendship, cities loss, loneliness, and of course, pleasure.”

The book is based around Mattilda’s search for embodied presence in a world that doesn’t allow it; refusing nostalgia and insistently sticking with the present; the difficulty of requests to not only imagine but to live the dream of the city, where you find everything and everyone you never imagined, or an unexpected encounter collapses the boundaries of imagination, as she puts it. This will surely resonate with readers in Dublin, another city ruled by tech companies, landlords and their tenant politicians hellbent on eradicating any space that does not align with their values. That is, that does not generate them profit.

But Mattilda does not only implicate politicians, landlords and corporations, nor is she only critical of the gay mainstream. We already know all this. She writes of the failures of the dream of queer, the borders constantly re-arising in oppositional queer space, loyalty, the scene masquerading as critical engagement, the feeling that, quote, “my body will never have a home.” 

Nonetheless, she’s persistent in her search. The text is littered with scenes in stairwells, streets, gay bars and cruising parks in which, however fleetingly, she finds that sense of presence, embodiment and connection she longs for. The heat of the moment, the bubbling up of possibility.

After reading for 20 minutes from the beginning section of the book, Mattilda is joined in conversation by Jess Bernard from Small Trans Library. They have branches in Dublin and Glasgow, where they run lending libraries, events, and most importantly, a relief fund for struggling trans people, which you can find out more about on their website at smalltranslibrary.org. And now, over to Mattilda.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: One problem with gentrification is that it always gets worse.

But then I go into a Hooters, and it’s a vintage clothing store. A friend of mine is trying on breasts. This is why I like dreaming.

I remember when faggots kissed hello. We had so much to fear and so we feared nothing, I mean we feared one another but we feared fear more. Kissing one another on the lips, this was joyous and commonplace, a legacy we were inheriting, an art—how to stretch out our lips in front of our faces, how to queen it up in front of a loving or hostile public, how to emphasize connection or disdain.

We kissed hello because we had to. We had to know we could kiss like this, a simple greeting but something splendid and transgressive even when mundane, or that’s what it felt like for me when I moved to San Francisco in 1992, and I was 19. This kiss didn’t necessarily feel like a radical act, it was just something you did if you were a faggot, whether in suit and tie or broadcasting the pageantry of outsider imagination. Was this something that united us? I wouldn’t have said so then, but maybe I’m saying it now.

Yes, there were the ones who turned their cheeks, too good for this kiss unless they explained the sudden turn by mentioning a cold sore, one just starting or one in the past, whichever way we hoped we were taking care. Sometimes you knew someone had really bad breath, but you kissed her on the lips anyway, it was okay to endure a little discomfort to avoid seeming snotty or scared. Unless this was one of those queens who would grab you and start feeling you up, that was a good reason to avoid contact.

You kissed the ones you loved and the ones you didn’t even like that much, sometimes even someone you hated, just so you wouldn’t seem shady. Too much garlic was never a problem, we kissed anyway. We kissed the living and the dying, knowing that the dying were part of the living and we wanted to keep them with us.

Maybe this was a dream—I mean I know it wasn’t a dream then, but maybe it is now. Now we’re more afraid, afraid of one another, so even the gestures of intimacy disappear. Most of the time I don’t even think of kissing someone hello anymore, I reach for a hug if possible and this can be beautiful too, but in a different way. How strange to think that in the early-’90s, when it felt like everyone was dying, we were less fearful in certain ways.

When I’m washing my hair in the shower, and suddenly I think what the hell am I doing? Oh, I’m in the shower—this is one of the things I do in the shower. Sometimes repetition leads to revelation, and sometimes revelation leads to repetition, which leads to no revelation ever again.

You know when you notice someone’s looking at you, but you’re not sure, so you do the same thing you were just doing, so you don’t look like you’re looking? I was holding a piece of chewed-up licorice root in front of my face in between two fingers, getting ready to throw it out the window. He lit a cigarette. I hate cigarettes, but that’s the place for them, downstairs and outside and away from my window. He crossed the street, looked back, waited, so then I literally leaned out the window. He came back. Eventually I said do you want to come up? And he did. That’s when I knew my life could start again.

There’s a certain kind of knowledge, growing up in a particular body, socialized to be a particular thing you will never be, knowing this and learning to grow with it instead of against. Maybe I’m saying we all need different kinds of people in our lives, right? When anything becomes homogenous, there’s a problem. When anything becomes so homogenous that people don’t even think about it, that’s worse.

I used to live in a neighborhood where no one belonged, and so we all belonged. Now I live in a neighborhood where faggots look at me like I don’t belong, and so I don’t. Soon they won’t belong either, but this won’t make anything better.

There’s too much desire without desire. Too much desire for desire. Not enough desire. Sometimes we remember the dead, and forget the living dead. And sometimes we forget everything. We make art so we don’t die. And still we die. Silence is a kind of memory, but memory should never be a form of silencing. Maybe there are exceptions. I know a process can be collective, and a collective can be in-process, but what about a collective process without collective process?

Knowing the gap between what you want and what you yearn for, can there be hope in this? Maybe I’m saying that yearning often comes from spurning, the brokenness from that glance, the desire for seamlessness. Maybe there’s no way not to be broken, only a way not to feel broken.

But then I actually make the move, first my leg close to his, then my hand a friendly brush against his cheek, eventually we’re making out and this is when my brain can relax. Maybe not just my brain but everything. This is what it means to have a body.

The conversation is important because it’s not important. This is what people do at bars.

At some point he asks me where I live. His name’s Caleb. I ask him if he wants to come home with me. He says: I’m undetectable.

Where’s the transition, I mean it’s like he’s online. I guess some people are always online.

I say I’m negative. He asks me if I fuck raw, he says he wants to fuck my brains out. I say no, I use condoms—but we don’t have to fuck, there are lots of other things we can do.

The truth is that I wasn’t even thinking about fucking, I just wanted to continue the way this was making me feel. He says no it’s not going to work out.

But still I’m here, in my body. I want to be here. I want to be here, in my body. With him. You’re adorable, he says, later, when he’s back and we’re making out again.

Adorable—I love that word.

He asks me where I live again. I guess he’s that drunk.

He yells over at some guy who just arrived: I wanna fuck the shit out of you.

I remember a phone sex ad from 2001, with someone who looked just like this other guy, pretending to be a gas station attendant with rhinestone studs in his ears and jeans with textured pockets. We can’t always be attracted to people we don’t immediately think are tragic. The way my heart stops a little and I feel the sensation of not moving. But why? I don’t want anyone to fuck my brains out.

Caleb says let’s switch positions, so now I’m next to James, who makes clothes. He likes my clothes. Maybe Caleb wants me to go home with James, is this strange or kind or a little bit of both I’m not sure but I like James too.

This is what happens at bars, or can happen, if you’re lucky.

James says do you live in Seattle? Because I’ve never seen you around. And I say that’s because I don’t go out. So he wants to know why.

Somehow I feel so comfortable, even though I’m wondering what this comfort means, how I could feel comfortable in this world where I don’t exist anymore, a world I’ve fled, a world that rarely welcomes me, a world I need so fucking badly or maybe I’m not thinking all of this yet. I say I don’t go out because of the smoke, even smoke machines—because I don’t drink—and because I deal with a lot of chronic health problems.

I’m worried about being too serious, here at this table with these fags I’ve just met, you’re not supposed to be too serious at bars.

But how do Caleb and I end up in the bathroom together, I guess it’s after he shows me a picture of his dick on his phone, I mean he says it’s an accident but I’ll take foreplay any way I can get it so we’re making out against the wall by the toilet and then he’s pushing me downward so I’m on my knees, yes, his dick in my mouth, someone comes in and maybe Caleb’s ready to pull away, but I could stay here all night. Then we’re in the bathroom that locks, he smacks my face kind of hard and I love it—how could this sex already feel so connected, now he’s sucking my cock, pulling on my nipples, but then I say that’s too hard, rub my chest, and then he does it right.

I ask him if he wants me to smack his face too, he doesn’t, somehow this is kind of funny and then he stands up and says that was your chance.

My chance for what?

Your chance to get off.

I didn’t know I was trying to get off.

Later, he’s telling me I’m adorable again, I really do love that word. He leaves to go home, but then he’s back, and he looks really sad.

I start to say did you just have a mood swing, but I stop myself because maybe that’s too familiar. What happened, I say, and he says it’s nothing, I just missed the bus.

I say I just got really sad because you’re sad, is that okay?

Are we making out, or just petting each other, or am I just petting him—he’s adorable, is that okay to say, even while he’s sad? Do you see how I’m so present? How this presence can mean so much, even in a situation that really means nothing.

He doesn’t want my number, I already know that. He has a boyfriend. Everyone in the bar is smashed because this is Sunday night, Sunday night early but early Sunday night is the messiest. This is why people are hooking up in the bathroom, this is why people are being honest, at least some of the people, but I like it even if it’s the messiness that makes people more open—I don’t need it but maybe they do. Beneath the shade and the shame and the sadness, there’s a sweetness, and I haven’t felt this in years I mean have I ever.

So I’m walking home with James, I mean he’s walking to the next bar and I’m walking him there on my way home. Everyone was exchanging stories at the bar, so I ask him if it’s okay to talk about Caleb, does Caleb always get sad like that, is he a sad drunk?

We talk about what we do, whatever that means but there’s a connection I think, I mean I need to come back into the world, maybe even this world. I kiss James goodbye, I mean we kiss goodbye, and I make it into the kiss that means we’re making out until he indicates with his hands that that’s enough and then we say we’ll get together soon. This is a part of me that I want to be part of, I mean I want this back. How long it’s been since I’ve had fag friends in my daily life. How much longer it’s been since I’ve dated anyone I mean over a decade. What my body needs in order to be a body that’s not just a body of needs. I’m getting really emotional. I’m right at the edge of being able to cry.

When I get home, the phone is ringing and I see that it’s James, he’s calling to give me his number because he forgot that he already gave me his number. I feel like I’m back in my body and I’m shut down. I’m so close to crying. Somewhere there’s a place in my body where I can actually feel alive.

Walking through Tashkent in the morning and doesn’t that sound romantic, but really it’s just the name of a tiny park of dirt and dogshit—someone comes rushing up to me and says I hope this doesn’t sound weird, but I saw you on the bus the other day, and I really like the way you dress. He looks like the awkward best friend from one of those movies in the ’80s except he was probably born in the ’90s—in a month he’s flying to Bangkok to travel through Southeast Asia because he doesn’t know what he’s doing with his life. I wonder what Bangkok means for him—is he a white kid in search of adventure or a mixed-race kid in search of something deeper, I’m already three blocks away but this is what I’m thinking about.

And then, as I’m getting closer to the real park, Volunteer, I mean I like everything about this park except its name in honor of the volunteers in the Spanish-American War, the way colonialism is always there, even when we’re looking at the trees and just as I’m about to enter the park I hear someone saying hell-lo! I look over, and there’s an older woman with curly gray hair in a sleek silver car, slowing down to stop the car behind her, and I figure she’s going to ask for directions, but instead she says YOU. LOOK. FABULOUS.

And then I get a rush through my body, this is what I’m looking for, this feeling of feeling what’s going on inside, me, and then at the end of the walk, when I’m getting closer to home, tired now, looking in at the yoga boutique to see a black tank top with shiny copper lettering that says, wait, already I can’t remember, one of those yoga slogans, fill in the blank, next to tie-dye print hotpants, and a blue sweatshirt reading LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED, because really all you need is this sweatshirt.

When you wonder what you’ve always wondered but in a different way, maybe this is what it means to grow. To move into a new space of wondering.

I want my body to feel my body. I want my body to feel.

Sometimes I feel invisible, which is not the same thing as saying I am invisible. I’m leaving Volunteer Park again, at the end of another morning walk. Some guy’s following me in his car, but I’m kind of in denial about it because it’s the middle of the day, so you can’t miss all my earrings, or the long red women’s coat that fits like a dress. And, because I’m wearing a purple hat with a flower on it—faggots are so afraid of flowers. Probably he’s straight.

I have a private garage, he says, before driving me into a building where every parking spot is taken. I need to piss. He opens the door to a stairwell—you can piss here, no one ever uses this stairwell. What do you like to do, he says, and I don’t have the answer because I’m attracted to the dynamic, but not to him. First of all, way too much cologne.

He wants to fuck me, which sounds pretty hot in this stairwell with the unfinished stairs and cement floor, but he doesn’t have a condom. We can go next door, he says, RiteAid, which isn’t next door.

I say we can go to my place, and when we get inside he starts to sit on my bed and I say don’t sit there, I’m pretty sensitive to cologne, I hope that’s okay. Of course he has poppers, even though he says he wasn’t looking for sex. He fucks me on the floor in the entryway, maybe not the best thing for my knees. When he’s done, he throws the condom in the toilet. Luckily he doesn’t flush. He says are you shy, you seem pretty shy.

But I might have just been invited to a covert Super Bowl party. I keep listening to Mark’s message to see if it says we will be watching football, or we won’t. There’s something about making vegan curry, but do you think it’s a trap? What if I get there, and everyone’s wearing Seahawks helmets and cock-socks?

Suddenly it’s very quiet. I guess I should go outside while the game is going on, and then get back home before it ends, right? Sudden memories of my father screaming at the TV. He thought that if he screamed loud enough, this would make him working-class—just one of the guys, getting drunk in front of the TV. A working-class psychiatrist.

I don’t know which is worse, people who watch football because they like football, or people who watch because everyone else is watching.

Now I’m in another gay bar. I knew it would be awful, but I didn’t know it would be this awful.

When someone asks WHAT’S YOUR REAL NAME, you might be in the wrong place. When four different people ask WHAT’S YOUR REAL NAME, you’re definitely in the wrong place.

Then there’s the queen who says are you a boy or a girl—JUST KIDDING!!! People at gay bars have really evolved.

This queen was dating someone who had my haircut, he was 25 and she thought he really liked her, but then he said she was too feminine. And short.

I am short, she says.

She doesn’t like it when people say how old are you, what a ridiculous question. Then she says: How old are you?

She had sex with one of the barbacks, but she didn’t like it when he said he usually likes to fuck several guys in a row. They were at a bathhouse.

Every gay bar is an accidental comedy routine. The best comedy routine is the one that takes itself seriously.

When you see a sign in the bathroom that says ANYONE CAUGHT SELLING OR USING DRUGS WILL BE BANNED FROM THIS ESTABLISHMENT, you know where to find drugs.

When someone in the bathroom says I’ve never been pee-shy before in my entire life—is this a compliment? I end up watching the guys playing pool in the room that isn’t so overheated, drunken hipsters humping the table, kind of out of place in this bar where the suburban imagination hasn’t even caught on to hipsterism. The hottest one for me is kind of butch but he’s wearing this T-shirt with little flowers on it—I’m in love with that T-shirt, I mean I’m in love with that T-shirt on him. He comes over to introduce himself and when I hold out my hand he does that thing like he’s confused that I’m not offering a proper masculine handshake, but somehow I don’t mind because I like the feeling of his hand so much. He keeps looking at me, and later he says he’s going outside to smoke but he’ll be back, so I lean over to kiss him, just to be friendly but also to see what might happen and what happens is that he turns away and reaches for my hand again. But I don’t need another handshake so I kiss his neck—what matters is that I’ve gone up to the one I’m most attracted to, I’ve gone up and I’ve made a move and now it’s time for me to go home.

Suddenly remembering all those times when I reached my hand out for someone to crush me. Without the trauma of mandatory masculinity, what would I be? I still remember that cactus I threw out the window as a kid when it poked me, and then it just grew and grew. When I say hi, my name’s Mattilda, and then everything’s over. It doesn’t matter how hot he thought I was before, he will never think that way again. What would it be like without this damage, over and over again? I can’t remember the last time someone asked what I would do if I was stuck on a desert island.

Before I threw the cactus out the window, I found a worm on the sidewalk, and I was playing with it, pressing a stick into its squishy body to see which way it would move—I pressed a little harder, and it split in half. So then there were two worms. Was this possible? They were still moving around. Until I realized that worm was dead. I had killed it. I didn’t want to kill anything ever again. I watched the ants building their cities, wondering what I looked like to them.

This city that is and isn’t a city, but I guess that’s what every city is becoming now, a destination to imagine what imagination might be like, except for the lack. Some terrible things are worse than other terrible things, but this doesn’t mean we need more terrible things.

Sometimes going to the grocery store makes me feel less alone. Sometimes I’m trying to tell someone about this new opening in my life, and I end up feeling closed. When I say opening, I mean the possibility that when I feel I won’t feel like I shouldn’t feel. My body in a room with other bodies feeling me feeling my body. When I say this room I mean you. When I say you I mean make room.

On a good day, I write in sentences. On a bad day, I write in thoughts. You know when you’re dreaming, and past and present blend together in a way that makes it feel like maybe you can imagine a future? And then you wake up. Dreaming is not quite escape, not quite thinking, not quite feeling, or is it? Because sometimes I feel so much more hopeful when I’m asleep, like this is the day when everything changes, I mean once I wake up, or maybe I’m already awake, but not quite, because it’s that possibility of living in two times or experiences at once, but in the same body, the one that lets me down as soon as I get out of bed.

Every time I shave, I get the same shaving cut. It’s like it’s lying there dormant, waiting for the blade. I don’t understand when I chop my finger instead of the onion. I don’t understand why nothing heals.

Jess Bernard: Okay, so, hi, Mattilda! It’s so great to have you here, thank you so much.

MBS: Thank you so much! I’m excited to have this conversation.

JB: Me too. So, I really want to ask you about basically everything from the reading. But obviously that’s not possible. The first thing that really jumps into my mind is kissing. It feels like everybody is feeling extreme amounts of things about kissing right now. And especially in this reading, it feels like you go through, so specifically, this itemized physical experience of handshake, and then kissing, and then the difference between kissing and making out, to fucking, in such a detailed way. I just wanted to hear you talk about that.

MBS: Sure, sure. I think the first thing in the beginning of the book, when I’m talking about kissing, I’m remembering when I was first coming of age as an avowedly queer person in the world. And when I moved to San Francisco when I was 19, and it felt like everyone was dying of AIDS, of drug addiction, of suicide. We were all coming of age at a time when becoming queer meant feeling like we were gonna die, and seeing death all around us.

And then remembering that that was the time when everyone kissed hello, especially if you were are a faggot, if you were a queen, if you were in worlds that revolved around gender transgression, or flamboyance. And so remembering that was a little bit shocking in a way to me, because, you know, I’m writing the book before the pandemic, and it’s very rare for anyone to kiss hello anymore. And to think that people were less afraid in certain ways when we were surrounded by death was really kind of shocking to me in a certain sense.

But also, there’s a groundedness in thinking about that universal experience of kissing as a kind of communal act, which I may or may not have realized in the same way at the time. And I think what you’re pointing to now, of course, we’ve all gone through. I mean, I haven’t kissed anyone in whatever, a year.

JB: Yeah, it’s been a long time.

MBS: And so it’s interesting how that passage has resonated in a different way, where the book as a whole, for people, before the pandemic, certain people would be aware of alienation or of loneliness. But I think as soon as the pandemic started, we’re all aware of that. Right?

JB: Absolutely.

MBS: I guess for me the question of the book is how can we exist in the world, so that we always feel just like that moment right before we’re about to make out, when our whole bodies are alive in anticipation, and is that possible to have that experience all the time? 

JB: That’s amazing. And do you think you would have written it any differently with the pandemic in mind, about that moment? Because I feel like I’m almost experiencing that moment, right now. I feel like it’s almost just out of reach, with regard specifically to the pandemic.

MBS: I guess I always write in the present. So if I were going to write it now, it would be a different book. But I don’t know what the difference would be. And what has been so gratifying is, I did write it thinking it would come out in something similar in terms of the present, and then you know, last April, May, everything changed. And I thought, well, how the hell are people going to relate to this? And people kept telling me that it felt so relevant! I had no idea what they were talking about until it came out.

I do think it is that feeling, that craving for intimacy and for connection, in a world that refuses that. That already existed, but then this compounding of all of the same problems became magnified, and where retreating into our own worlds actually had a valid aspect of protection. So I think that’s what has shifted.

But the questions now in particular, almost exactly the same, as we move toward touch and toward physical intimacy, how do we make it better? Right? I feel like it’s a lot of nostalgia for a very recent time period, that was only a year ago. And if it was already barely livable for so many of us, then how do we make it more connected? How do we have more presence, more intimacy, more connection, more possibility, and not just go back into the same, barely livable reality?

JB: One of the things that I would ask about that: when you talk about the questions sort of always being the same, the questions that face the present, sort of always are the same. There’s this sort of eternal quality to the present because it never really goes away. We’re always in the present. 

And so I wanted to ask you about the limits of language in the book. There’s a lot of repetition in the form of a book, you sort of explore pulling concepts in different ways at different times, in a way that reminded me of Wittgenstein. Is that totally off the bat, because I know that you had a launch with Maggie Nelson, and she’s really big on Wittgenstein?

MBS: Well, I love that question because I like when my work is engaging with thinkers that I had no intention of engaging with. And I love that because I feel like when we put work out in the world, we want it to exist on its own terms, but we also want it to be in conversation. And sometimes those conversations are what you’re talking about, the text itself, I’m writing toward that surprise, toward the way the text bends around itself in order to find its own embodiment. So I like the idea that it can also bend toward other texts that may or may not have been intentional.

JB: [laughing] Well, thank you for clearing that up. To continue on the subject of meaning and language, I’m from New Orleans, I’m obviously not from Dublin. [Editor’s note: Jess has an unmistakable American accent.] The word gentrification for me, it sort of confused me the way that you use it in the book, and I think it might confuse other people who are here. I know that you’re in pretty serious conversation with Sarah Schulman about gentrification specifically. But I was wondering if you could speak to the relationship between that, and maybe a more racialized concept?

MBS: Yeah, you know, the first line of the book is “One problem with gentrification is that it always gets worse.” And so that line is on its own page, and then you’re just kind of stuck there, right? Or you’re, you know, you’re like, what’s going on? For me, that’s because the landscape in which the book takes place is gentrification. So everything that’s happening is in that landscape.

I see gentrification, certainly on the level you’re talking about, which is the structural level, where it starts with real estate speculation, urban removal, property, exploitation, taking away anyone who is considered undesirable. And so that often means people of color, elderly people, people living on the streets, migrants, trans people, queer people, anyone who can’t, or refuses to fit into that myth of upward mobility, is sort of pushed to the side, pushed out of the neighborhood. And sometimes some of those people can also be part of that gentrification, right?

I think, on that structural level, it starts at the top with redlining, and with all of these racist legal and governmental policies. I think, especially in hyper gentrified cities in the US, like Seattle, or like all of the sort of the cities that we generally talk about, you know, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, I think that pattern continues over and over again.

Now, in the book, what I’m talking about—that pattern is, of course, there, but what I’m talking about is how gentrification goes into our bodies, right? And our minds. And so even the way of experiencing the world is gentrified. In Seattle, we have this term that people use called the “Seattle freeze”. And basically it’s like, you walk outside, you see someone, they seem kind of interested in you, you get closer, and they turn and look at a wall. Or maybe even you see someone you know, and you might walk right by them, and they’re not even going to recognize you at all.

In Seattle, people rationalize that and they say it’s the ‘Nordic heritage’. [laughing] It did not exist as a term 20 years ago. And it is that gentrified mindset. And that’s the mindset of the white picket fence behind the eyes, right? So you’re living in a city, but you want to engage like you’re in the suburbs. So people aren’t moving to the city for that sudden experience that’s unexpected, that will change them. They’re moving to the city to recreate that suburban walled off mentality. And so we have this paradoxical and traumatizing experience where our cities look more and more like cities, and they feel more and more like walls, you know, or fences away. 

JB: Absolutely.

MBS: And so that walled off mentality, I think that’s what I’m sort of pushing against in the book.

JB: Okay yeah, that makes so much sense. And it reminds me, for some reason you started talking about the “freeze” and I was like, you know what’s like that? Boston.

MBS: Oh yeah, Boston is the worst of the worst!

JB: Oh my god, it’s so bad!

MBS: Yeah, like my novel Sketchtasy it takes place in Boston in 1995. And I think, in some ways, unfortunately, Seattle is the Boston of the West Coast. [laughing]

JB: [laughing] I would not dispute that.

MBS: But I think like that rabid fear of difference, that’s Boston, you know.

JB: Extremely. So to focus a little bit, it’s not really a question about Dublin, but it sort of is.

Dublin is obviously undergoing a huge shift in gentrification in a way that I think really reflects Seattle, because we have so many of the tech companies here, they’re setting up all of their EMEA headquarters in Dublin, and they’re forcing everybody out. So just to swing; you talk a bit about in the book about finally having your own apartment and having your own space, and your fantasies about that brand new washing machine spoke so much to the way that I think about possibly having a kitchen someday. How does it feel? How does it feel to have that safety?

MBS: Well, it’s interesting, I say in the book that—I can’t say that it has changed my life, and I can’t say that it hasn’t changed my life, something like that. For me, you know, I was living in an apartment where they raised the rents 70%. And so I was like, “wow, this is not going to be livable for very much longer.”

So that sort of fantasy of owning a place, which never was really present, it was like, I had inherited some money from my grandmother so I had the money for the down payment. And I was like, well, I’ll be paying the same amount, but I will technically own, you know, my own space—now, I don’t really believe in property ownership, but according to the law—and I guess have more control over my environment. For me in particular, as someone who deals with devastating chronic health problems in everyday experience, and they are debilitating, and certain things like laundry, where, if I put my laundry in a machine where people use chemical products, then it just poisons me, and I’m waking up all night, like, poisoned by my sheets.

Those are the things that have changed like that. Having that, yeah, has definitely impacted my life. And certainly during the pandemic, especially, things like that, where I would never have had my own laundry, has changed my quality of life in the broader sense, I don’t know if I feel that different. But I’m not worried that I’m gonna get evicted. So obviously, that’s a huge thing. So I have that stability.

But I guess for me, I really want to push against that middle class mindset, because I think that’s the problem with Seattle, everyone just wants to own a home. And everyone should have a home, don’t get me wrong. But I think the ways in which people compromise their ideals, or their values, or the ways they engage with the world, right—they have their own home, and then they go on the street, and they’re acting like they’re not even in a world with other people.

And for me, the beauty and possibility of cities is what happens in public space, not what happens in private. Like, yes, we should all have access to all of our basic needs, housing, health care, food, a sex life that matters, the right to stay in this country, or leave if we want to, all those things should be available to everyone. But I feel like so much of that middle class mentality is about walling everything off.

And so for me, I don’t want to engage in that worldview. For me, still, the beauty of being in a city is the possibility that I will go outside and find some kind of connection, whatever it is. Whether it’s just with a random person that I encounter, whether it’s with a tree, or the light on the buildings, like all of that, I want to be present to those possibilities. 

And I guess it always destroys me, the ways in which people refuse that, especially here in Seattle. But I do feel like what Seattle is is what everywhere is now, all of the gentrified cities. Like I was in San Francisco a few years ago, and that’s the city that formed me, and it formed me because I could go out on the street and see people who recognize me. And I don’t mean me, they didn’t know who I was, but they recognize me as some weirdo who was like, desperately trying to exist in the world, on her own terms. And you could feel that, you know. And now when I was there two years ago, I felt nothing. I couldn’t even figure out where I was. San Francisco doesn’t look that different, because it has very strong preservation laws, but it feels emptied out. 

And so I think that’s that suburbanized mentality, which is facilitated by tech gentrification. And people are just walking around like, they’re on a phone, right? Or they’re not even walking around. They’re just at home, ordering everything in. Which, of course, again, there was a reason for doing that during the pandemic. But I think I just think in general, in the book, I am sort of writing against all of that.

JB: Yeah. So it’s almost this concept of taking the walls that you live inside of, and this concept of homeownership and like, absorbing it all into your brain and letting it govern your interactions with the world.

MBS: Yeah, that’s the nightmare. That’s what I think we always have to avoid, you know, and I think the stability, and the potential safety that it can allow is what we should be trying to create for everyone rather than existing in that walled off mentality.

JB: Absolutely. And it speaks so much to my experience of Dublin—obviously, I’m not from here—one of the reasons that I came and stayed was because I felt recognized, and now it’s just sort of eking away very slowly over time, and I think that is a sort of universal experience.

To talk a little bit more about loneliness, you talk about loneliness and desire and lack and pushing through them, or sort of leaning into them to find out what’s on the other side. And to me, that’s terrifying! It’s something that I would really, really struggle to do. Do you think the opposite of that kind of like going through is necessarily complacence? Or do we have to go through those feelings to get to the other side?

MBS: Oh, interesting. Do you mean going through the loneliness and the alienation and the desperation in order to get to that connection?

JB: Yes. 

MBS: Oh, yeah. So it’s interesting, because I do think in the book, yeah, I’m writing toward embodiment, and embodiment can mean connection, and it can mean intimacy and presence. And also, yes, it is that loneliness and desperation and alienation and that craving and that sadness and trauma. And I guess I wish I could say, “we could just not have any of that.” I mean, I don’t need that. [laughing] I guess what I want is a way—I don’t think that I’m valorizing or glamorizing the experience of lack, but I feel like I want to be present in whatever the experience is. 

And I think in the book, you know, I’m moving toward that potential intimacy. At the beginning of the book, I have that moment in a gay bar, and I’ve avoided gay bars for so many years, because I’m like, “what the hell is there for me?” Like, I know their limitations. I know, the racism and misogyny, the transphobia, the femme phobia, the self hatred, the body fascism, etcetera. But I’m in this bar, and I feel the shame, and the shade, and the sadness. But also, there’s a sweetness. And so I think that’s what I’m trying to get to, going into worlds that I already know are corrupt in order to find what isn’t, because the worlds I once thought would hold me and allow me to exist in that dream all the time, do not. I see their limitations more than their possibilities.

But I feel like for me, there is a way to have that intimacy—one thing I realized only recently is, in a way, the most successful intimacy in the book is the text itself, the intimacy that it creates on the page, and in engagement with the way that language circles around in order to find a kind of presence. So there’s something there and I’m not sure what it is yet in terms of my life. I mean, I know what it is in the book, but I feel like I want to move toward intimacy and connection. 

And of course, I do feel like there’s a way to exist in the world without that trauma. But I think the world doesn’t allow it. That’s the problem. I’m there, but the world will not allow me to exist. Like, if I go outside, and everyone’s looking at me like “you don’t belong,” right, but I feel like there’s a possibility in that? In the sense that maybe belonging is not what we need. What if what we need is the possibility for no one to belong?

JB: Definitely. I’m almost getting the sense that embodiment is sort of, at least in the book, and in what you’re talking about, is sort of the world pushing against you, and then you’re sort of circling the drain of yourself and going through it to the other side.

To pull a quotation, you say in the book, “if the experience of loneliness inspires the search for connection, why is it that the search usually just results in more loneliness?” It’s a beautiful circuity and it’s really mirrored in the form of the book, and I wanted to ask, what was the form, this sort of like, fractured form? Like, what does that do for you? Or what does it mean for you?

MBS: Yeah, I mean, I think for me, the text breaks when the feeling can no longer hold. And then it has to go somewhere else. Because I’m writing toward that embodiment. You know, in that quote you just mentioned, right, it’s also circling back to find itself. For me, I wanted to—sometimes that involves what could on the surface seem like contradiction, right? Or could seem like impossibility. So the book in a sense is about desire and its impossibility. Like I’m moving toward the possibility.

But of course, often that involves that flipping. And I also feel like I do want to destabilize the way that we are, and defamiliarize at the same time as I’m trying to get to a place of grounding. I feel like part of that involves flipping everything and allowing for more space for the unexpected.

JB: Definitely. And to take this on a more surface level; in the book, in a really casual way, and just for certain people, you go back and forth between pronouns a lot of the time. And it feels both like a historical thing, and also maybe a political one. And it really spoke to me, because I like to joke that my toxic trait—and this is not about other people’s pronouns—but my toxic trait or whatever, to borrow a phrase from Twitter as a queer person, is that I don’t really think words mean anything. And I was wondering if you could speak to that sort of like, is it a contradiction? Is it a flipping?

MBS: So I think what I’m doing in those parts is, I’m utilizing the queens’ vernacular to destabilize these normative ideas of gender, that often like, fracture us, right? Like any queer person, or I would say any person, but I think queers and trans people are, of course, more aware of this, where we grow up in a world that tells us we have to be a particular thing that we know we will never be. And so for me, the possibility of the queens’ vernacular, in destabilizing those boundaries, is to allow us the freedom to exist on our own terms. 

JB: I think this is our last question. So I’ve listened to a few of the interviews—and I wanted to ask this earlier—that you’ve done about this book, and I haven’t heard you talk about the ice cube and the freezer tray yet. 

And I just wanted to hear you expand on it a little because it obviously gives the book its name, and I was interested in how the story arc of it locates a really specific kind of relationship that’s maybe not explored that much elsewhere in the book. And I was wondering if like the language of this really everyday visual metaphor did something different than from the other language in the book?

MBS: Yeah, thank you so much for asking that. So that’s one of those moments in the book where I think I say something like, “I don’t understand why nothing heals.” And it’s in that emotion that the text can’t even be in the same world anymore. Like if I’m going to feel fully that embodiment and disembodiment and that loss and that devastation, then it can’t even be in the same world.

And so it moves into the freezer, and in the freezer, there is an ice cube inside an ice cube tray, and they are in a relationship. And it’s a relationship of necessity and survival. And it’s also a relationship that’s very similar to the relationships that happen in the world, right? Except they are in their own world that is the freezer. That’s their whole world, right? And they’re having conversations that are somewhat similar to ours, they’re talking about gentrification, they’re talking about art, they’re talking about, you know, their relationship, but it’s in a condensed, I guess I would say, innocent—you know, I don’t know if I believe in innocence in our world, but in the freezer between an ice cube and ice cube tray, I think there can be that in a sense. So they’re playing out all these dynamics of relationships that we’re familiar with. But it’s in almost a like, not a fairy tale, but a…?

JB: It’s almost like a parable.

MBS: Yeah, thank you. I think I agree. Or an allegory to the world that we’re in, right. And so there is that question of like, what happens when you open the freezer door? For them, for the ice cube in particular, that could be the end of life. And so the book is sort of asking that question of what happens when we do that anyway? When we risk everything in order to search for intimacy and connection on our own terms?

JB: Well, I definitely don’t know the answer, but I hope we all find out very, very, very soon. I think that was our last question. And yeah, just thank you so much. Thank you so much. That was a great conversation.

MBS: Oh, yeah. Thank you so much for your wonderful questions and for your deep engagement with the book. I loved chatting with you.

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