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MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE

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(Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore by Gina Carducci)  

Morty: Hello Mattilda, so happy to hear your voice.

Mattilda: Thank you. I’m excited to be here with you! 

Morty: Okay. Let’s begin from the beginning. I first wanted to ask you about your beginnings with art and writing. 

Mattilda: Okay. As a kid, I think the only person in my immediate family who inspired me was my grandmother, who was a visual artist. Going to her house and playing around in her studio was sort of the one opportunity I had to dream… you know, because I didn’t really have that in my life, unfortunately. I often felt trapped and annihilated growing up in an assimilated Jewish family where educational attainment and status were very important. And underneath the upward mobility of my parents was this other thing  because I was sexually abused by my father and the abuse was always hidden. And the way I dealt with it as a kid was to retreat in my head and to imagine somewhere else. Going to my grandmothers studio to make art, the dream that she evoked was about  living your creative life in the every day. I would later learn that she had the same vicious status obsession as the rest of them and that was sort of the genesis of it. But I didn’t see that when I was a little kid, I believed her kind of mythology. I started reading when I was really really young. Reading was a way to get away. I could just disappear into the world of the book and stay there. The first stories I wrote were probably in grade school. I wrote a lot of stereotypically girl stories. You know, I’d write about the fairy castle where like the walls were made of emeralds and the ceiling was made of diamonds! That kind of stuff. It was about escape and fantasy and building a world I could live in because the world I had was full of violence. So, yeah, that’s my beginning. 

Morty: So how did you handle the message from your family about status and achievement? 

Mattilda: Oh, I was an over achiever. It was ingrained in me that the most important thing was educational attainment and the second most important thing was class striving. I internalized that message entirely as a kid. As a third grader I would read these workbooks we had in school that went up to an 8th grade reading level, and I would just read them all and the teachers would not know what to do with me! I definitely thought I had to go to college and that I had to beat my parents on their terms. I thought I have to go to a more prestigious college than anyone had ever gone to in the family. I had to have the most prestigious job, make the most money, live in the suburbs,  and I thought as long as I beat them then I was successful! (intense laughter) And I felt totally trapped because none of this fit with what I wanted. And I did end up going to a more prestigious college than anyone in my family had gone to. And I think initially, when I got there, I thought that the only way I could really get away was to go to college. So, in the beginning being in college I did feel a sort of liberation being away from my parents. In college I started to think okay well now I’m queer and I can be vegetarian and I can find other people like me. And I did learn a lot from being there but what I really learned most from was from activism against the administration for racial and class justice. And I think after year I started to realize that if I was going to beat my parents on their terms that I was actually just going to become them. So, I realized I had to get even further away to learn more and that’s when I moved to San Francisco. I was really looking for direct action activists and freaks and queers and anarchists and vegans and incest survivors and runaways and dropouts and that’s what I found! I really found a culture of outsider queers trying to build something in the ruins of our own lives. Trying to challenge the balance of the status quo and also trying to build something we could live with. Something we could cherish.. ways of taking care of one another that was not based on status quo normalcy of the mainstream world or the vapid consumerism of the gay mainstream world. That was really my formation with coming to  San Francisco in the early 90s in a way..politically, culturally, socially, sexually, emotionally, ethically. 

Morty: How old were you?

Mattilda: 19. 

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(Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore by Kevin Coleman) 

Morty: So, you just packed all your bags and just left?

Mattilda: Well, I had gone with a friend to San Francisco. In our heads we said we were just moving for the summer. I think we both knew we were leaving permanently but we didn’t say that. And within a few months we were already different people. I knew that I really couldn’t go back. Actually, I did go back three years later to make sure I made the right decision! When I went back it was really fascinating because the people that I met as a first year were now seniors and getting ready to graduate and I can really see how it had changed them, you know. In the first year they were just quirky, traumatized weirdos trying to figure things out and they had all assimilated, no matter of class background, into this East Coast elite kind of talking and behaving. So, I was just there for a semester and then I never went back. And I think that was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. I think leaving school and coming to San Francisco in particular really gave me my foundations and let me create myself based on my own terms and to find other people like me. San Francisco was outside of what I had ever known… it was where I could dream! Not that it wasn’t heartbreaking or difficult or traumatic but it was on my terms. I didn’t feel suffocated. I didn’t feel that I was living a lie to please my parents and beat them. I was rejecting their terms and really the terms of the larger world, of the upper middle-class status driven obsession, whether that be straight normalcy or academic attainment or even what it means to be smart or what it means to be successful or what it means to love or live with other people, take care of one another, you know, all of that. I was trying to create my own terms for all of these things. 

Morty: You felt like you plugged into a community or communities in San Francisco pretty quick? 

Mattilda: So, this was 1992 when I first got to San Francisco. When I first got there the first thing I found, for better or worse, was club culture. I had been going to clubs since I was 15 or 16 in DC and clubs had always been a kind of place to escape, a place to go and dance and get crazy. I found that world pretty easy and at the time finding a place to go dancing at 6am was really important to me! And then I started going to ACT UP pretty soon after I arrived. And I think, at that time in 1992, as a queer person coming into a queer world and trying to find others I could relate to it really felt like everyone was dying. Whether that be from AIDS or drug addiction or suicide it really just felt like it was surrounding me. So, going to ACT UP felt like a necessity. Finding a way to engage in direct action to challenge the AIDS crisis from a queer perspective. There were different politics with different chapters of ACT UP and I think the San Francisco chapter was really, at the time, centered around needle exchange, universal health care, women with HIV and AIDS and prisoners with HIV and AIDS. So, those were the four most important issues and that you couldn’t fight AIDS without fighting racism and classism and homophobia and misogyny. That those were all intrinsic in queer struggle and I think that was really formative for me. It was also really important for me to learn from the immediacy of engaging in common struggle. So, those two things I found really fast. I don’t know, it really felt like I very quickly was immersed into the Mission dyke, at that time, scene as well. I remember going to Junk after ACT UP meetings. It was a dyke club full of freaky outsider ragged styley punk dykes. It was one of the few clubs where the dancing and the politics and the socializing and the partying could happen together. At the time my ideals were the same as my practice so I thought I should be a slut.. so that means I should meet someone every week and go home and that’s what I did! I feel like there was a culture of people who were experimenting with sex and gender and politics. A lot of us of similar age who had fled from abusive families and most of us had dropped out of college or never went and we were actually kind of suspicious of the ones who had graduated! (laughter) And I think it was really messy. It was also heartbreaking to see how people could let each other down in the same ways that we were trying to get away from. But again, it really was the most formative time in my life. And in a way I was sort of living between worlds. The direct action activist world and then club culture and Mission dyke culture. And it felt really separate, with only a little overlap. For me, I always wanted the politics to come first and have everything sort of go through the politics. For most people it didn’t work like that. What would come first would be, you know, who they were loyal to or who had the best fashion or who was the best S/M top, you know whatever attracted you in that moment. 

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Morty: When did you start thinking about your first anthology, Tricks and Treats, and publishing?

Mattilda: As a kid writing was a way to sort of process the world and place myself in it in some way. As a little kid I also wrote a lot of poetry and after a while my poetry became more and more spare. I was writing language poetry where you have 12 words on a page and it was really about the experience of the text not the actual text. I was really kind of obsessed about these really structural things. I wanted to change language. I wanted to put something on the page that expressed everything without actually telling the story. In the culture I was a part of in the Mission I met a lot of people who were whores or strippers or other kinds of sex workers. When I first started turning tricks I would tell these elaborate stories about the tricks and my friends would say oh my god you need to write that story down. I was skeptical because I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that kind of writing. I was worried that it was a story that had already been told. I was obsessed with this kind of idea of originality and shifting the parameters of the actual language. I identified as an experimental writer so I thought let me just try this. So, I started writing the stories down and then I thought oh, wait, these are good stories! So, a few years later I started sending my work off to publications and I was getting published in anthologies. I think what I learned from writing poetry is editing. Especially language poetry because you had to cut everything out and leave like 5 words on the page to mean everything. So, there are stories that hookers tell one another about a trick and the story would reveal all these layers of sex, love, intimacy, power, class, race, gender, you know, the interrelations of all these things but in an immediate way not in a necessarily super analytical way. So, my first anthology, Tricks and Treats: Sex Workers Write About Their Clients came about, well…while I was living in Seattle. At the time, so around 96’ and 97’, I was meeting other published writers and I met this wacky and critical and engaged writer, Steve Zeeland, and he suggested to do a book about male hustlers and pitch it to Haworth Press. And I thought, well, I’m not interested in a book about male hustlers but I am interested in a book that shifts the gaze in terms of sex work. So, instead of having televangelists and social workers and talk show hosts endlessly talking about these dark and depraved and desperate and dangerous people that should be pitied and examined and pathologized, I thought no, lets put tricks under the microscope. And I really wanted sex workers of all genders, sexualities, backgrounds and people engaged in all kinds of sex work. Phone sex operator, street worker or sperm donor in one case. So, I proposed that idea instead and they rejected it. But I had already put it together in my head so I thought, well, I’m just going to do this anyway. So, I put the whole book together and then like a year later the same publisher contacted me again and just said we decided to do it! Ha hah! I never figured out what changed their minds. And, actually, it was a few years later when it was published. It was published in 2000. My next book with them, Dangerous Families: Queer Writing on Surviving, happened in a similar way. I wanted to talk about survivors of childhood abuse, to tell their own story but queer survivors of all genders side by side. I think so often in these books, that are mostly recovery books, they are really gender segregated and to be more specific they are basically for women. That’s how they are presented… and they are mostly about female survivors recovering from abuse by male abusers or parents. Some were for male survivors but those were about how to recover your masculinity and I thought the last thing I want to do is recover my masculinity! That’s what I’m trying to get rid of! And I wanted queer survivors of all kinds of abuse:  sexual, physical, emotional. And they rejected that one because they wanted it to be all male. I think a book about queer male survivors would not be a bad book it just wasn’t the book I was interested in doing. I felt, at that time, in terms of talking about abuse, the abuse is the commonality. Why does it have to rest on this basic idea… can’t it be across gender and across sexuality if we are going to discuss across different types of abuse? And with this book it was very similar. They rejected it but then came back to me and changed their mind and said yes. That one took a long time to come out because that came out after my first novel, Pulling Taffy, but Pulling Taffy was done later. 

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Morty: Were you consciously deciding that you really liked to publish work and wanted to continue? 

Mattilda: I think what happened was, I grew up knowing I wanted to be a writer and was told that could never be possible. I was given the choices of being a doctor or a lawyer Hah! Right! It became clear to me I wasn’t going to be a doctor or a lawyer in high school because I knew I was…too edgy perhaps. So then it was well, maybe you should be a college professor! I think I always knew that my writing was good. I also knew that it was a very difficult way to support yourself but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. We’re taught that you can’t be creative because it’s not marketable. I knew that the best writers never get published and I was fine with that. I was writing really for myself. When I started to get published and do readings I thought oh, well, this is kinda fun. It didn’t make my writing more meaningful but it was another thing, another way to connect with people I might not know otherwise. And people could connect to my work who are not necessarily coming from the same place. And when I did the first two anthologies I started to see it as a kind of organizing. I can use my skills as an editor and as a political organizer to create a conversation and put it in the public domain that would not otherwise be taking place and that was exciting. 

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Morty: How would you describe your first novel, Pulling Taffy?

Mattilda: Pulling Taffy I originally wrote as short stories. I really started to get into the form of short stories after poetry. What was always the most important thing was voice, the voice of the narrator. Everything else I wanted to get rid of. So, I had this collection of short stories and I would send it to friends for feedback and one person said the narrator in most of these stories are very similar, I think you should think about making it a novel. And I was thinking I don’t want to make a fucking novel but I figured I’ll try it out. I changed some things and moved some things around and then I looked at it again and I thought actually, it’s much stronger. It’s a non-linear novel, so it doesn’t go from point A to point B and so on. Pulling Taffy is about searching for home and not necessarily finding it in a tangle of cities just before the millennium. And I kind of wrote it in those years too - from 95’ to 2000. It came out in 2003, so it took awhile. I had a hard time finding a publisher! Oh my, did I! You know, I remember in high school I would send some writing out to these literary journals and there is this mythology about literary journals, that, you know, they are looking to discover new writers, right? Like The Paris Review, they are really interested in that undiscovered writer that no one knows about! Hah! It’s such bullshit! They don’t look at any undiscovered writer unless it’s someone sent by Michael Cunningham who says I found an undiscovered writer at Columbia! It took me a long time to figure that out. That’s what I love about anthologies, they are accessible for writers who are not entrenched in, you know, someone that went to the Iowa Writers Project or something. With Pulling Taffy, you know, the publishing industry makes these decisions and one of them is that non linear experimental writing is not marketable. So, they don’t want it. I was always told that writing is supposed to speak to the center. And the center in publishing is always this straight, white, hyper-educated East Coast elite. Sometimes it’ll be the middle America caucasian market. So, if you are something else you have to explicate, you know, justify your existence. You have to say this is how I got to this deep, dark, depraved place. This is how I ended up here. And I am not interested in that. I don’t want to speak to that center. It’s pointless. As soon as you try to speak to that center you’ve given up, it’s trash. I think people are interested in more challenging work but the publishing mythology of what is marketable keeps existing. There is no reason why all kinds of people wouldn’t think oh, this is fascinating! For me, I’m writing on my terms, and I’m writing on the narrators terms and someone reading it would have to enter on the terms of the writing. Or not. And sometimes people hate it for that reason. Especially my books Pulling Taffy and So Many Ways to Sleep Badly. People will say to me, this doesn’t even have a plot! And I say, you’re right! For me, that’s the only way I really want to write, and the reader can either accept those terms or not. Pulling Taffy was published by Suspect Thoughts, which was a new publisher at the time. I think it was the 2nd or 3rd book they published. I was really important to them. I was helping establish their name as a publishing house. So, it was a good relationship in that sense. We were all learning at the same time! And now, they’re gone. I think a lot of small publishing houses went away, especially the ones publishing really challenging work. I think a lot of publishing houses, including a lot of really small publishing houses, are not any more accessible than the big ones. Just a niche that they are accessible to. It’s fascinating because there was a moment, especially with queer work, where anthologies were the thing to do. In the early 90’s there were tons of gay fiction anthologies and even erotica was on big commercial presses. And now that moment is over and anthologies are no longer marketable. The books I’m most known for are anthologies. Especially That’s Revolting and Nobody Passes and now, Why Are Faggots so Afraid of Faggots. There are still publishers who say, oh, your anthologies are not marketable. They need to be taking what they like and make it marketable! Take JT Leroy, this is a perfect example. Nobody would look at that and say it wasn’t marketable - it took writers like Dennis Cooper and Mary Gaitskill and their agents to say we like this, lets make this marketable. They should be doing this with all books that are interesting and challenging. But the one they do decide to market was a scam! 

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Morty: Even though it’s “not marketable” you still have love for the anthology. And so do I. 

Mattilda: Yeah, I really believe in the anthology as a social, political, cultural and even emotional intervention. I think my skills as an editor really just get better and better! My most recent anthologies are really in conversation with each other. First there was That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, which was an intervention in the morass of gay culture and the dead end of the media frenzy about what it means to be queer. Is it just marriage and military, adoption and ordination into the priesthood or are there radical alternatives that want to reject all of those options and create something else… I wanted to reflect on the worlds that actually mean something to me, queer life on the fringe and direct activism. And I also wanted to question the framework for all of those things. Because what’s the point of doing something if you can’t question it. I mean, I don’t want to glamorize something or glorify something without also talking about the mistakes we make. So, I want talk about racism in radical queer culture or misogyny or transphobia. That’s Revolting is talking about violence and assimilation. There is actual, palpable violence when gay people assimilate into the status quo. It’s not imaginary. There is a violence in pushing out anyone who doesn’t fit in. Whether that be trans people or people of color or people with multiple partners or queer kids or anyone who isn’t drinking the newest liquor and doesn’t have the right dog etc. With Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, I wanted to examine passing as a means through which assimilation takes place. I wanted to talk about passing across all kinds of lines like race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, body type or what it means to pass in cultures of resistance. Like what it means to pass as genderqueer. In my anthologies the things that really challenge me and surprise me… those are the ones I’m like bring it on, this is really exciting! And with Why Are Faggots so Afraid of Faggots, my most recent anthology…you know, I didn’t first think of them as a trilogy of sorts but now I think that they are! I think Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots is asking a specific question but I wanted to use the analysis of the previous books. What does it mean to bring a queer and trans analysis into the intimate spaces of gay male sexual social culture? These books all come from really personal places and I think with Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots I get inspiration from queer, trans, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, gender defiant culture that I’m a part of but I also exist, especially sexually, in the gay male sexual culture which glorifies and is reverent of everything that I despise. So, the intervention is, if these desires that we hold dear only lead to this product driven sexual marketplace, then how do we imagine something else! Maybe desire isn’t just holy and beautiful - maybe it is that, but it’s also this other thing. I think for me, gay male culture is this place where the grossest aspects of straight craving normalcy are around and not questioned. So whether it’s unquestioning masculinity or a relentless drive to police the borders to keep the people with the wrong bodies, the wrong genders, the wrong sexualities out. All of these things are unquestioned. It’s an assimilationist trajectory. If you look at things now compared to the early 90’s. The kind of analysis around gender and sexuality that we have now - it is just so far ahead of the early 90’s.  I mean, there was gender transgression then but it was very binary. That’s really changed dramatically in certain cultures. But then we have this retrograde happy, patriotic, were-just-like-you, status crazed, clone kind of mentality that acts as if we are in the 1950’s! Not even the real 1950’s but the one shown on TV! That’s what gay people want! And even some queer freaks believe this! They swallow the whole package and say, “Oh, we should want marriage. It shouldn’t be the main focus but we should want it on some level”. No, we shouldn’t want it on any level. I mean just the idea of becoming part of the US military, being openly gay and dropping bombs. It’s abominable. I mean the cities in how ever many countries that the US dominates but, no, were talking about this wonderful progress that we can wear rainbow rings while we obliterate Pakistani villages. Oh, this incredible progress! It’s sad. And I think it’s even more sad when people know this is an atrocity and we need to be ending the US military and not becoming a part of it, when they say things like, “Well, it’s a starting point”. I mean really! It’s a starting point for a massacre! It’s a starting point for culture erasure. 

Morty: Your books are now being read by students in universities. Do you think your books can intervene in these spaces as well as in radical queer spaces to further the possibilities of what queer culture is? 

Mattilda: It’s interesting because on my last book tour for Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots more than ever before after talks at universities I’ll have students who say they’ve discovered my books in college and it changed their life and it enabled them to think differently or helped them to find others like them. That’s beautiful and very inspiring. These books help to find ourselves, to find one another and to stand out from all the shit that’s all around us! When I go on tour I can actually see how my work impacts people and then to have conversations and see how I can be impacted by that. I want it to be a mutual dynamic. So, yes, radical challenges to the status quo can exist both in the radical outsiders world which rejects those institutions as well as inside those institutions. But, I think the broader cultural picture is more bleak than in the early 90’s when I started to engage with the world as an avowedly queer person. I guess it’s a contradictory place where there are tons of possibilities but they are constantly being smashed, annihilated. We can create our own culture, we can create our own meanings, we can create our own lives and I don’t believe in doing that unless we are also challenging the violence, so doing both of those things simultaneously is what my work is about. It is speaking from the margins and to the margins and I think in some ways that changes the center but not in the ways I can see…except in the way things become commercialized and like wow now it’s trendy to fill in the blank. So, were in this really contradictory place of incredible possibilities and incredible failure and incredible violence. So, it means for me to keep creating more challenging and vibrant things. 

Morty: Lets talk about your newest book that isn’t out yet, The End of San Francisco. Please describe the book and what we can find in it. 

Mattilda: Sure. My most recent book, The End of San Francisco, is part memoir, part social history and elegy and in a way its about my formation politically, socially, emotionally, ethically, culturally and then the undoing. The book circles back in all these different ways to San Francisco as a place where freaks and queers and outsiders and druggies and anarchists and hookers and deviants can find a place to find one another and cope. The disappearance of that possibility. That’s what the book is circling around but it’s more personal. I’m really talking about my own history and at times it has nothing to do with San Francisco. So, the book starts with visiting my father before he died of cancer. I had told him I was never going to see him again after I confronted him about sexually abusing me unless he could come to terms with it, but he never did… but I decided to visit him anyway before he died. So, the book starts there and then continues with trying to regain a sense of hope and wanting to go dancing to find a place of escape and intimacy and not being able to dance due to chronic pain. There are all these different endings, and part of it was the end of my hope in that idea of San Francisco that I was very heavily invested in. Even if I didn’t believe in it I was still trying to create it! And whether that be in the 90’s or the early 2000’s with the beginning of Gay Shame and my hopes in creating relationships through activism. Intimacy through engagement. The kind of relationships where you keep revealing everything. I felt a failure of that for me personally. The book is an investigation of where I keeping finding myself. I still believe in the same dreams. But…they keep letting me down. On a personal level. I don’t think it means that I have to let go of these dreams but it does mean…something. And the book examines this place of being stuck, of imagining all these possibilities and enacting them and finding them but then also places where it’s a terrible failure. Where the people you’ve always believed in are also the people that let you down the most. With writing the book it’s interesting because in 1994 there was this ending for me, but then again in 2000 believing in something else there I am again in San Francisco.. and let down again. Then, there is this third big ending, with the closest relationship I’ve had for 15 years. This relationship was so much a part of my ideals. Like accountability and mutuality and intimacy and negotiation and trust..he was the one who stayed through all the different cities we’ve lived in and then coming back to San Francisco again. It was a relationship where I thought if I have nothing else I’ll always have this. Well, I don’t want to ruin it all for you! I’ll just say that it became really dramatic. That was really the end for me because when he was gone I said, well I’ve got to get the fuck out of here. All these things that meant so much to me no longer meant anything. Being surrounded by the overwhelm of the annihilation of my dreams…and relationships, culture and things became gross and violent and vicious.  It doesn’t mean the same possibilities may exist there, but they don’t exist for me. So, that’s why I had to leave, to find these possibilities. And that’s where I am now. 

Morty: I wanted to ask you a bit about trans and queer lit right now. How would you describe trans lit?

Mattilda: Well, I would say anything written by trans people is trans lit. It’s a question very similar to what has been asked in the past about gay literature. Some people are ready to disavow and say well, I don’t want to write trans literature or gay literature I want to write literature! 

Morty: What are your thoughts on what trans literature is at the moment?

Mattilda: I think trans lit is an emerging category and there are a lot of amazing people writing really interesting work… non fiction more than fiction. In terms of trans writers, I love Dean Spade’s work but, to me, it’s not literature. Another book that’s really interesting is Captive Genders edited by Eric Stanley and Nat Smith. I think anything about the trans experience that challenges the boundaries of what it means to be trans is important. I think, you know, there is this LGBT thing, right. And the T is supposedly this fixed identity that is attached to 3 other fixed identities. For me, the potential of a trans identity is challenging all those categories and building something else. Having fluidity and experimentation and transformation and negotiation at the center of lived experience of gender and politics and sexuality and everything, it’s all of it. I think Captive Genders is presenting a lot of different works about the trans experience and the prison industrial complex but it goes to, like, there is a piece on the gay bathhouse raids in Toronto in the 80’s and on the surface you wonder, this is about the policing of gay male sexual behavior, how does this relate to a trans experience? Making you ask that question is the kind of writing I’m looking for - writing that explodes the boundaries rather than accepting. I think one of the problems is the policing of the borders of identities and that has happened a lot in terms of my work. For example, with my anthology Nobody Passes, this book came about when an editor at Seal Press read an interview I did in Bitch Magazine and contacted me. Seal Press is a press with the tag line Books For Women by Women. I immediately thought oh, Nobody Passes, wouldn’t that be perfect..a book about challenging the parameters of passing on Seal Press edited by someone who is certainly not passing as a woman. I sent off a proposal to them and they were interested but the editorial board had some questions and the first question was how do you identify, what is your gender identity. I said, well I’m a genderqueer faggot and a queer on the trans continuum in the gender blurred gender bending section and I’m not particularly interested in conventional definitions of male or female I’m much more interested in identity that’s much more deviant and defiant. And they were like oh! That’s so interesting! Ha ha! They didn’t know exactly what to do with that, but they let it go further and they did accept the proposal… but then the whole time during the editorial process there were these dramatic arguments about what could be included. What literally was about “gender” in quotation marks, they were really fixated on this. So, something about racial profiling or anti-Arab hysteria they would ask me well, how was this related to gender. And it’s this interesting place - I think this is where there is potential for transgender as a category. The potential is not to have another fixed identity. Another narrative where people start in one place and all end up in another place. They’re all smiling and happy and have done the right things in their lives, right? No, it’s to end all of that! Also, with my novel, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, the first review was in Publishers Weekly, which comes out way before anything else - and this was the first time Publishers Weekly had reviewed any of my books - and their review had a sentence I was totally fascinated by which was “the narrator may or may not be genetically female”..Ha haaah!! Keep in mind this is a book that starts in a gay cruising park with the narrator on her knees waiting to suck cock and moves to a bathroom in a Bikram yoga studio where some guy walks out with a dick like a bowling pin. I think the writer of the review wasn’t talking about the narrator but the author of the book. It was this sort of snide attempt to police, you know, like who is this Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore! She calls herself she but how do we know!! In publishing this kind of thing happens a lot. This also plays out in the niche marketing of books where people say, well, I don’t consider my work trans literature or gay literature. I think they are taking the wrong tact. They are reacting to a illegitimate publishing industry that can only market things based on a consumer niche. It feels like they are rejecting the transness or gayness of their own experience. Or the queerness. We need more trans and queer lit, not less! So, for what is published and defined as trans I would say the vast majority is memoir because that is what is considered marketable. And most of the memoirs fit into this, you know, I was born in the wrong body and then I figured it out and then I had this surgical transition and now I’m fine! Ha! You know. That is what the publishing industry wants. I don’t know if there is a body of work out there in terms of what is published and accessible that I would —well, there is political work and there is memoir and aside from these two things there really isn’t that much that I would see as trans lit. I mean, there is a lot of work about gender transgression, so that’s another question, do we include that work? If the writer themselves don’t identify as trans. I’m interested in having more work about gender transgression that sort of annihilates the categories and destroys the parameters and creates something else. I think for me I want to see something that destroys literature, period. That’s what I think trans lit can do! End literature and create something else! 

Morty: I love the idea of getting rid of literature but we are still struggling with the idea of whether we can be canonized… like, for instance, how gay male lit has been. Many trans writers have told me how they are waiting for more trans books to be taught at universities…there is that desire to be seen at this level. 

Mattilda: Yeah, I think for me, as long as the work can be experienced on its own terms, then thats fine. For instance, Nobody Passes is taught at a lot of colleges and I think that’s exciting and it makes it so that when I do events at college campuses I encounter people who have actually read my work. And that’s wonderful because it makes the conversation we have so much more nuanced. But it’s tricky because for me any canon is defined by what it excludes just as much as what it includes. I’m not really interested in that particular methodology as much as I am in challenging the boundaries of what matters. Creating more space so that a wider variety of more challenging work can be experienced.  With my latest anthology Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots, I found a lot of reviews had a discomfort with the word faggot. So, they would describe me and sometimes say trans author but neglect to say that I was a faggot! It’s an interesting twist, you know. We need to be able to claim all the layers. 

Morty: I’m curious what you think about the language surrounding trans identity…

Mattilda: I think in the trans, genderqueer, gender defiant and gender non-conforming world our language is shifting and emerging on a daily basis. If you look back even two years ago and the vocabulary that we used it’s totally different. And we have to have space for all of it. And there are these little things like trans woman being two words and not one - five years ago nobody would have written it with two words. Now using two words is considered the most acceptable thing. Okay. But what about the person who doesn’t want it to be two words? You know, I’m not a trans…woman. I am not a woman who just happens to be trans, I am a transwoman. I think while we are finding new ways of expressing ourselves we need to keep the full range. Sometimes people get really caught up in what is and isn’t appropriate. Now, the word tranny. I think it’s a beautiful word…and currently there is this real policing. If anyone uses the word tranny it is this horrible transphobic slur and I think the only way to take away the power of a slur is to take it on! Not to disavow the viscousness and violence of transphobia that continues in almost every realm of the world right now. But it’s not because of the word tranny someone gets murdered because they are trans. It doesn’t matter if the murderer politely addresses them as a trans woman..I think there is this media rush towards a  political and even aesthetic kind of purity that is contrary to what a trans identity can offer. And we see that politically, socially, sexually, in the media and even within intimate conversations. I think I want to create more options, not fewer and that goes for literature, for politics, for fucking, for vocabulary, for all of it!! Here (in Seattle) there is a drag night called Hey Tranny Its Tranny and it was controversial and people wanted them to change the name to something else. I’ve never been to this drag night, so I can’t tell you what its like but I do know there are tons of drag nights that are incredibly and horrifyingly transphobic. As well as racist, misogynistic, fat phobic, body fascist, you know, on down the line but it has nothing to do with the word tranny. So, if they change nothing about it except the word then it’s still the same! Sometimes the words that are used against us become the most powerful for us to use ourselves. 

Morty: My last question is a generic one but I would really like to hear your words of wisdom, as they say, on writing and making art in general to those who are genderqueer, gender defiant, trans, gender non-conforming etc….

Mattilda: Haaaa! I would say bring it on! In all of its glorious complications and messiness and intimacy and… vulnerability is so important. I spent a lot of my childhood trying to appear invulnerable and I think that is how we survive when we are taught that we are evil and our desires are polluted and corrupt and twisted. And I think there is a place for invulnerability but I think most of the best work in whatever it is: art, film, writing, sex, activism, make up, runway, walking down the street - most of the best come from vulnerability. Also, just to not try and fit yourself into categories that don’t actually express the complications of your life. Forget about trying to explain to the supposed world around us that doesn’t understand anything - we don’t need to explain to them. They don’t need to get it. We need to express our lives and they can get it if they want to. It shouldn’t be about them, it should be about us. I think a lot of work really loses its potential when it’s about explicating. It should be just: Here. Take it. Take it or leave it but I’m going to make it! I’m gonna make it, I’m gonna break it and I’m going to make it again and bring something into the world that expresses my own realities. And no, not just vulnerability, but also invincibility, transformation and feeling trapped, unfulfilled, fulfilled, sadness, happiness, longing, disastrous, vibrant and expressive - all of it! We don’t need to get caught in one thing. And don’t get caught up in being a model trans person. You know, we didn’t have that 20 years ago because there was no such thing! Now I think there is! And sometimes that means a really strict gender identity and sometimes that means a particular gender performance or a specific narrative. I think, lets just get rid of all that. That’s what ruined our lives in the first place. We don’t need to create a new prison to inhabit. So, I say: flaunt it! 

Find out more about Mattilda here: http://www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.com


The Most Magical Place On Earth

By Wyatt Riot 

I thought I was going to piss my self by the time I landed in the airport. As soon as the fasten seat belt sign came on my bladder let me know how full it was. I’m not sure why my bladder couldn’t hold it just a little bit longer. It was almost as if my teeth were floating in my skull. I— was about to explode. If I could have any super power in the world it would be to have a bladder made of steel. No doubt about it.

Sitting in the middle of the plane with an isle seat, watching each person in front of me grab their belongings from the overhead bin and under their seats in anticipation of exiting the plane. Time had slowed down for everyone and I was on full speed. As people slowly left their rows I waited eagerly, standing with my legs crossed while I waited for my turn to exit; my turn to rush out of the plane and into the restroom.

Saying my thank yous to the flight attendants as I exited the plane, I could feel my heart beating faster and the sweat start to slowly drip from my temple. I’m sure I looked like I was going to puke, I was so anxious. It felt like my heart was about to beat out of my chest and onto the floor. With each little step I could feel my bladder start to expand, I wasn’t sure how much longer I could wait.  

I hustled my way past little shops selling over priced snacks and drinks. I saw flustered parents with their children and very serious business people doing seemingly very serious business. I had my own serious business to do. People were running into me left and right, with each tap it felt like a blow to my bladder. Just a little bit longer, that’s all I needed. With how large airports are, you’d think they would have restrooms at every corner. I’d been walking for what seemed like miles. Don’t they know how important it is to pee? 

In the not-so-far distance I saw a glowing sign. In eager anticipation I was hoping it was — yes, it was! RESTROOMS! Oh, the beautiful site of a public restroom. On the other side of that door, sweet relief would be mine.

Suddenly, panic set in. I looked at both restrooms. My eyes going back and forth between the two like the eyes on a tiger hunting their prey. I watched each person enter and exit the restrooms. How did they know where they were supposed to go? Did they use the restroom that matched the gender on their ID? How did they know where they belonged? 

I stood there watching for what seemed like hours, holding my bags which were getting heavier and heavier by the moment. I felt like I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. What am I supposed to do? Where was I supposed to go pee. 

I’ve never understood gendered spaces. I know what my ID says and I know how I feel about my own gender. But that doesn’t always mean the people in the restroom agree. I’ve had my share of being yelled at. It doesn’t feel very good to have children point and stare at you as if you’re a big scary monster. It’s embarrassing to feel threatened by something so simple as the restroom, but it’s really not that simple at all. It would be so much easier if people would respect me when I’m in the restroom. I promise I’m not trying to enter the “wrong” restroom, I’m just trying to pee and not get harassed in the process.

My bladder was feeling worse. I didn’t think it could feel this full. Watching people choose one restroom or the other with what seemed like ease had me feeling envious. Why couldn’t I have traveled with a friend? It’s always easier going to the restroom with someone. Safety in numbers I always say. I’m not sure why my gender threatens people, but the last thing I want is to get yelled at, accosted or worse.  I’ve had my fill of being called slurs. I’ve been called a faggot, dyke, he-she, what the hell are you and more — what people don’t understand is I’m just a person. A person with very basic needs.

I understand my gender. It’s something I’ve thought and fretted about for years, so I know who I am — as much as any person can. For some reason the rest of the world doesn’t seem to understand my gender and they can’t let that go. I don’t really care if people understand me, I just wish others would respect me like I respect them. This doesn’t help me in this moment though. My bladder, it’s still aching.

Standing there just trying to hold on for another minute, people continued rushing past me while saying their usual “excuse me sir” or “excuse me ma’am.” What was I supposed to do? I contemplated pissing my pants, which at twenty seven years old is a little embarrassing. 

As tears started to well up in my eyes from frustration I looked over to my left. I couldn’t believe it. How did I not see this before? The most magical place on earth was only a few feet away from me. I really had won the jackpot this time. I ran as fast as I could to the giant sign that read GENDER NEUTRAL RESTROOM. After I was inside I threw my bags onto the ground and locked the door behind me. What a relief.

If only everywhere I went had these, then I could pee in peace. Is that too much to ask for? It seems like a simple request to me.  

Bio:  wyatt riot is a fat, queer, femme, trans, faggot living and  loving in portland, oregon. he is the host and co-creator of put it in your mouth with wyatt riot (www.putitinyourmouthwithwyattriot.com), web series that documents his love of food and camp. you can find him out in the world blushing and making it happen or often at the library, sipping tea and doing his homework.