When and how did you first start to take yourself seriously as a writer? What enabled you to make this shift, and what marked the change?
I’ve played with language my entire life, although I think of myself as a reader first and a writer second. I thank my mother for all of this—she read to me, often, and encouraged my love of books, and this changed everything. I’d like to think of my writing outside of the context of my professional career. So, while I recognize that completing an MFA, or publishing a first book, that these moments might have cemented some kind of commitment to publishing my work, taking myself seriously as a writer has more to do with taking seriously my commitment to myself, my community and this planet. The change is probably marked by a question—what is my writing doing?—and a decision in my twenties to take that question seriously.
What do you find most challenging about writing creative nonfiction? Most satisfying?
Although my work is often framed as genre-troubling, I don’t know how to write any way but autobiographically. Autobiographical writers have been important to me, especially as traditions of autobiography combine with struggles for liberation and social justice. The challenges, I think, are in finding a way to render myself honestly on the page, resisting the urge to paint a romanticized self-portrait in hopes of finding other rewards, other ideas, and other engagements. I do think autobiography has a lot of political utility, and I’m most satisfied when I feel like I’ve managed to achieve that utility through something like lyricism or beauty, always trying to honor life as it is lived with other people.
Your work has engaged with many topics, including gender. Given the widening awareness and recognition of gender multiplicity among and within individuals, do you anticipate an eventual end to the category of gender altogether, or do you think that there will always be a place for something we refer to as "gender identity" or "gender expression"? Is this question related to interdisciplinary and cross-genre practices in art generally, and writing specifically?
I’m glad that some of the broader cultural conversations about gender continue to evolve, the same way that gender itself is always changing. I’m not so much interested in the idea of gender ending altogether—there are so many vital and liberatory experiences held within gender, and in considering what gender is, we should center people whose gender has been silenced or erased by white settler culture in the United States. So I’m interested in making space for a greater diversity of gender expressions and identities in public life, which requires real commitment and work, and part of that can happen through art and writing practices. Breaking down the conservative rules of genre or discipline provides one kind of opening, although things like prison abolition or healthcare access are, I think, much more necessary.
Your new book, Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through, engages with the art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. How did you first encounter Gonzalez-Torres, and how did his art become a touchstone or companion for the writing of your book?
The first piece I encountered by the artist was his “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in LA), the candy spill that appears toward the start of my book. I saw it in a gallery, although it was about fifteen years ago, and I can’t remember where that might have been. Over the years, I kept returning to his work, sometimes attempting to write about it, but it wasn’t until I started writing Time that I began a more focused engagement. There’s a lot I love about his work, but I was drawn to write about it because of the questions it opened up for me—about rejuvenation, change, beauty, loss, as well as the space he made for queer love and touch in the middle of it all.
How do you respond to the ongoing debate about whether creative writing can be taught? What do you feel you can offer students as a mentor that they would have difficulty learning by themselves?
Learning is collaborative, inside the classroom and out, just like writing and reading are inherently collaborative acts. As to what I can offer students, that varies wildly from one student to the next. I have my own ideas about things like process, practice, form, or performance, and I might tend toward these lessons, but I’m more interested in proposing ideas that student writers might attempt or challenge, rather than telling students how to write in any prescriptive way. I can offer my perspective as a person who has dedicated myself to writing and reading, but ultimately, a semester with a student is most successful if the student develops her own ideas and goes further along her own path, rather than mimicking what I offer.
What are you reading?
I’m always encouraging people to read Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism lately, I can’t recommend it enough. I was glad to spend time with Jericho Brown’s The Tradition last week, and returned to Kate Zambreno’s The Appendix Project before that. Next up, I have a pile of research to get through, then Melvin Dixon’s Vanishing Rooms, and I’m eager to get my hands on Trisha Low’s Socialist Realism when it’s soon released. There are so many amazing books coming out this year, though, it’s a real blessing!
What do you enjoy most about mentoring MFA students and why?
It’s a gift to spend one-on-one time with another writer’s thinking for a semester, and to engage in conversation across the different texts that we read. At this moment of connection between two writers, I often find new light in which to consider familiar ideas, writers or traditions I hadn’t studied before, fresh concepts or ways of approaching work. When writing can feel like a solitary act, these exchanges can lead me somewhere new, and the ideas that take shape outside of the academy are always as interesting as those held within the institutions.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a few projects underway, but they’re all in very early stages, still amorphous. I’m a slow writer, and I try to resist and delay the moment when projects become set—staying as long as I can in the unformed, letting ideas and modes shift. So right now, there’s lots of reading, lots of play, with the hope that the next book won’t emerge for some time. The act of discovery is one of the most pleasurable parts of writing, and I try to draw from it as long as I can.