Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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dzuunmod Interviews Me

1-Is the queer by choice issue the political/social issue that you're most passionate about? If yes, what inspired you initially? If no, which issue is it?

Sometimes it's the one I'm most passionate about, and sometimes it isn't, but it's never very far down in my priorities. I shift my primary political focus slightly from month to month according to what important things are currently going on in the world that are capturing my attention, and what issues I'm currently feeling too frustrated and burned out about to have as much energy for. Since September 11th, antiwar issues have frequently been the ones I've felt myself focusing the largest amount of my attention on; but it varies from month to month and in the past few months I don't think I've devoted that much energy to them at all. Gender and race issues are also usually fairly high up in my priorities, as are issues of appearance-based oppression of any kind. Class issues and environmental issues are of interest to me but I tend to feel like a whole lot of other people understand them much more thoroughly than I do, so I rarely feel qualified to say anything very detailed about them.

I think antiwar issues and environmental issues are probably the most important issues in the world at the moment, but queer by choice issues are the ones that I'm personally most qualified to really make a difference in the world about.

Queer by Choice issues were the ones that first politicized me in a major way, and they always periodically return to being #1 priority from time to time. What inspired me to take up Queer by Choice activism was: loneliness, alienation, feeling misunderstood, being treated hostilely, and feeling that mainstream "born that way" responses to homophobia were promoting homophobia more than eradicating it.

2-Do you like living in Sacramento? Why or why not?

That's sort of like asking me if I'm glad people have lungs instead of gills. I've never experienced any alternative to my current situation, with respect to both breathing apparatus and geographic location, so I can't really imagine the alternatives well enough to know what I'd prefer. The closest I can come to answering this question is to say that not only have I lived in Sacramento for my entire life, but both of my parents have lived in northern California for their entire lives (my father grew up in Sacramento, and my mother in Vallejo, which is near San Francisco), and three out of four of my grandparents were born and raised in northern California (my maternal grandmother was born and raised in Colorado but has lived in California for the past 60 years; my paternal grandfather was born and raised in Sacramento but moved to Oregon for his final 40 years or so, but he hardly counts as a relative since not only did I never meet him, but he was never even informed that I was ever conceived, because he was a violent jerk who was disowned by the family). I'm not sure exactly how many of my great-grandparents were born and raised in northern California, but it's at least half. The generation before that was probably pre-1849 Gold Rush, so I suppose they were born further east.

So, my roots here are deeper than the average Sacramento resident's. I'm attached to the place, but I'd find it very difficult to explain why. I'm not so much attached to the specific city of Sacramento as to the region of northern California. I like being within fairly easy driving distance of (a) redwood forests, (b) the ocean, and (c) San Francisco. And I like the rivers. Sacramento has two rivers that run through it and that flow together downtown - the Sacramento River and the American River. I'm not emotionally attached to the Sacramento River, but practically every significant event in my entire life has taken place at one spot or another along the banks of the American River, so I feel a definite connection with that one. It's my river.

3-Which author(s) writing today just write(s) beautifully - regardless of subject matter or politics or anything else? Could you give an example or two?

First of all, I have some problems with the way this question is phrased, because I don't believe that beautiful writing is something that can be entirely separated from "subject matter or politics or anything else." It's true that some authors are better at stringing phrases together in pretty-sounding ways than other authors, but I think there's an excessive tendency in our culture to believe that the ability to string phrases together in pretty-sounding ways is the entirety of what good writing consists of, and that the other aspects of writing that cause us to love or hate certain authors are all somehow just our personal biases and not valid or objective judgments of quality. I disagree. For example, Jeffrey Eugenides is a writer writing today who is very, very good at stringing phrases together in pretty-sounding ways; but I refuse to name him as an answer to your question because I think his writing lacks an honest understanding of how human minds and feelings work. Another way of phrasing the fact that I think his writing lacks an honest understanding of how human minds and feelings work is to say that I hate his politics. The first way of phrasing my objection to his writing comes across as an objective criticism of him; the second way of phrasing it comes across as a subjective bias against him. But they are the exact same objection to him: arguments over how human minds and feelings work are political. (For more details about exactly why I dislike Jeffrey Eugenides's writing, read this entry.)

So I'm not going to name authors like Jeffrey Eugenides because I don't think that naming authors who I actually think do not write beautifully would be a sensible way to answer your question. However, I will make some effort to tailor my response to the way in which you phrased your question, to the extent that I will make sure that every author I name will be an author whose writing I not only like overall, but who I also think is particularly good at stringing phrases together in pretty-sounding ways.

Also, I'm going to restrict my answer to authors writing in English, because (a) the way you asked the question makes it seem like you're inquiring about the author's use of words on a level that might not be easily judged when I can only read their books in translated form, and (b) the list would get way too long if I didn't restrict my answer somewhat. Even with this restriction, my list is quite long: I believe the authors writing today who write most beautifully, when defining the word "beautifully" primarily in terms of wordplay but also excluding anyone whose writing I think lacks talent in any other way, are: Sherman Alexie, Pat Barker, Amy Bloom, Don DeLillo, Annie Dillard, John Irving, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, and Gore Vidal.

Now, examples for you.

These are the opening lines of Sherman Alexie's short story "Assimilation":
Regarding love, marriage, and sex, both Shakespeare and Sitting Bull knew the only truth: treaties get broken. Therefore, Mary Lynn wanted to have sex with any man other than her husband. For the first time in her life, she wanted to go to bed with an Indian man only because he was Indian. She was a Coeur d'Alene Indian married to a white man; she was a wife who wanted to have sex with an indigenous stranger. She didn't care about the stranger's job or his hobbies, or whether he was due for a Cost of Living raise, or owned ten thousand miles of model railroad track. She didn't care if he was handsome or ugly, mostly because she wasn't sure exactly what those terms meant anymore and how much relevance they truly had when it came to choosing sexual partners. Oh, she'd married a very handsome man, there was no doubt about that, and she was still attracted to her husband, to his long, graceful fingers, to his arrogance and utter lack of fear in social situations - he'd say anything to anybody - but lately, she'd been forced to concentrate too hard when making love to him. If she didn't focus completely on him, on the smallest details of his body, then she would drift away from the bed and float around the room like a bored angel. Of course, all this made her feel like a failure, especially since it seemed that her husband had yet to notice her growing disinterest. She wanted to be a good lover, wife, and partner, but she'd obviously developed some form of sexual dyslexia or had picked up a mutant, contagious, and erotic strain of Attention Deficit Disorder. She felt baffled by the complications of sex. She haunted the aisles of bookstores and desperately paged through every book in the self-help section and studied every diagram and chart in the human sexuality encyclopedias. She wanted answers. She wanted to feel it again, whatever it was.

A few summers ago, during Crow Fair, Mary Lynn had been standing in a Montana supermarket, in the produce aisle, when a homely white woman, her spiky blond hair still wet from a trailer-house shower, walked by in a white T-shirt and blue jeans, and though Mary Lynn was straight - having politely declined all three lesbian overtures thrown at her in her life - she'd felt a warm breeze pass through her DNA in that ugly woman's wake, and had briefly wanted to knock her to the linoleum and do beautiful things to her. Mary Lynn had never before felt such lust - in Montana, of all places, for a white woman who was functionally illiterate and underemployed! - and had not since felt that sensually about any other woman or man.

     —Sherman Alexie, "Assimilation," The Toughest Indian in the World, 2000

In Pat Barker's novel Border Crossing, a husband and wife have been trying to have a child. It hasn't worked. The wife has become frustrated and angry all the time, and the husband has become impotent from stress plus frustrated and angry all the time. Their marriage is now falling apart. Then one day as they're taking a walk by the river, they happen to see a boy trying to drown himself, and the husband dives in and saves the boy. After they take the boy to a hospital, they come home and take a bath together and they actually feel turned on for a change:
They dried each other, then he chased her upstairs, and they fell on to the bed, where they lay, gasping for breath. Her eye, an inch away from his, was a grey fish caught in a mesh of lines. For the first time in months he didn't know or care where she was in her cycle. This had nothing to do with ovulation or getting her pregnant, and not much to do, if he was honest, with loving her. Everything had to do with the moment he'd seen the boy's body hang suspended, like a specimen in a jar of formaldehyde, an umbilical cord of silver bubbles linking his slack mouth to the air. He saw him now. The boundaries of flesh and bone seemed to vanish. He was staring at his own death.

Afterwards they lay side by side, a medieval knight and lady on a tomb.

"I'm sorry," he said. He knew she hadn't come.

"It's all right."

He felt the bed shaking and knew she'd started to cry. "Lauren . . ."

She sat up. "Do you realize you risked your life back there for a complete fucking stranger?"

If this had been said with a scintilla of admiration, he'd have felt obliged to pooh-pooh the idea, to point out that he swam further than that every other day of his life, but her tone was aggressive and he matched it. "There was no choice."

A stubborn silence.

"If I wasn't a strong swimmer, I wouldn't have gone in. And, anyway, I'm all right."

She wasn't angry with him for diving into the river. She was angry about the botched sex, and about his failure to get her pregnant. "Let's have a drink, shall we?"

He didn't expect her to follow him downstairs, and she didn't.

     —Pat Barker, Border Crossing, 2001

This one is from a short story by Amy Bloom about a couple whose first child, Saul, was recently stillborn:
Marc comes back to bed, and I am kind enough to pretend that I'm asleep. If I were awake, he would have to comfort me. The circles under his eyes darken and crease the skin down to his cheekbones. Why should either of us have to endure his comforting me? He puts his hand on my hip, as if to balance himself, but I know he's checking. Am I twitching, am I sweating, are my shoulders heaving? He's a good man; he will avoid me only once. Having got off the hook earlier, he is compelled to be attentive. I sound like I hate him, which I don't.

I do fantasize about his death, however. I strangle him with the umbilical cord, the blue-pink twist they took off Saul's little no-neck. The doctor, my own obstetrician - a perfectly pleasant, competent woman, a Democrat who sits with me on the boards of two good causes - is perforated by the smallest, sharpest scalpels, as in an old-fashioned knife-throwing show, until she is pinned to the wall of the operating room in pieces, her lips still moving, apologizing, but not so profusely that I might think she was at fault and sue her for malpractice or wrongful death or whatever it is that my brother-in-law told us we could sue for. My wrongful life, my dying marriage, how about those house plants and the students I don't give a damn about? For the nurses and the intern who assisted Mary Lou, I use dull scalpels, and I stick them with horse-size epidural needles when they try to escape.

     —Amy Bloom, "Stars at Elbow and Foot," A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, 2000

This is a sex scene from a little less than halfway through Don DeLillo's immense novel Underworld:
I felt a breath of estrangement on the room and thought she might be a voyeur of her own experience, living at an angle to the moment and recording in some state of future-mind. But then she pulled me down, snatched a fistful of hair and pulled me into a kiss, and there was a heat in her, a hungry pulse that resembled a gust of being. We were patched together grappling and straining, not enough hands to grab each other, not nearly sufficient body to press upon the other, we wanted more hold and grip, a sort of mapped contact, bodies matching point for point, and I raised up and saw how small she looked, naked and abed, how completely different from the woman of the movietone aura in the hotel lobby. She was near to real earth now, the sex-grubbed dug-up self, and I felt close to her and thought I knew her finally even as she shut her eyes to hide herself.

I said her name.

We were hollowed out like scooped guava when it was over. Our limbs ached and I had a desert thirst and we'd killed the morning off. I went and peed and watched the fluid splash amber in the sun-washed bowl. What well-being in a barefoot piss after a strenuous and proper screw. In the room she sniffled a little and sounded hoarse and brassy and I rolled a blanket over her. She fell into pretend sleep, leave-me-alone sleep, but I eased onto the blanket and pressed myself upon her, breathing the soft heat of her brow and tasting at the end of my tongue the smallest beadlets of fever. I heard room maids talking in the hall and knew we were gone from each other's life, already and forever. But some afterthing remained and kept us still, made us lie this way a while, Donna and I, in the all-and-nothing of our love.

     —Don DeLillo, Underworld, 1997

These are the opening lines of Annie Dillard's autobiographical book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I'd half-awaken. He'd stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I'd wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I'd been painted with roses.

It was hot, so the mirror felt warm. I washed before the mirror in a daze, my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp. What blood was this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth. The sign on my body could have been an emblem or a stain, the keys to the kingdom or the mark of Cain. I never knew. I never knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I'd purified myself or ruined the blood sign of the passover. We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence.

     —Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974

On page 374 of John Irving's novel The World According to Garp, a car wreck takes place. On pages 375-377, Irving describes in intense detail every detail of Garp and his wife Helen slowly, in shock, taking stock of their and their son Duncan's injuries. What he completely omits any mention of until 22 pages later is their other son, Walt, who was also in the car. This passage is from page 397, just after the narrator finally brings himself to reveal that Walt is dead. (Details you need to know: Garp can't talk because he has a broken jaw; Duncan's right eye has been gouged out by the uncovered tip of a stick-shift gearshaft; Roberta Muldoon is their transsexual friend; and the "someone else" referred to in the passage is Michael Milton, with whom Helen had been cheating on Garp. Michael Milton lost 3/4 of his penis in the wreck, because Garp's car with the kids in it crashed into that guy's car with Helen in it and Helen was performing fellatio and the force of the wreck shoved her mouth closed, hard . . .)
They made love so carefully. Helen imagined that she was Roberta Muldoon, fresh out of surgery, trying out a brand-new vagina. Garp tried not to imagine anything.

Whenever Garp began imagining, he only saw the bloody Volvo. There were Duncan's screams, and outside he could hear Helen calling; and someone else. He twisted himself from behind the steering wheel and kneeled on the driver's seat; he held Duncan's face in his hands, but the blood would not stop and Garp couldn't see everything that was wrong.

"It's okay," he whispered to Duncan. "Hush, you're going to be all right." But because of his tongue, there were no words - only a soft spray.

Duncan kept screaming, and so did Helen, and someone else kept groaning - the way a dog dreams in its sleep. But what did Garp hear that frightened him so. What else?

"It;s all right, Duncan, believe me," he whispered, incomprehensibly. "You're going to be all right." He wiped the blood from the boy's throat with his hand; nothing at the boy's throat was cut, he could see. He wiped the blood from the boy's temples, and saw that they were not bashed in. He kicked open the driver's side door, to be sure; the door light went on and he could see that one of Duncan's eyes was darting. The eye was looking for help, but Garp could see that the eye could see. He wiped more blood with his hand, but he could not find Duncan's other eye. "It's okay," he whispered to Duncan, but Duncan screamed even louder.

Over his father's shoulder, Duncan had seen his mother at the Volvo's open door. Blood streamed from her gashed nose and her sliced tongue, and she held her right arm as if it had broken off somewhere near her shoulder. But it was the fright in her face that frightened Duncan. Garp turned and saw her. Something else frightened him.

It was not Helen's screaming, it was not Duncan's screaming. And Garp knew that Michael Milton, who was grunting, could grunt himself to death - for all Garp cared. It was something else. It was not a sound. It was no sound. It was the absence of sound. "Where's Walt?" Helen said, trying to see into the Volvo. She stopped screaming.

"Walt!" cried Garp. He held his breath. Duncan stopped crying. They heard nothing. And Garp knew Walt had a cold you could hear from the next room - even two rooms away, you could hear that wet rattle in the child's chest.

"Walt!" they screamed.

Both Helen and Garp would whisper to each other, later, that at that moment they imagined Walt with his ears underwater, listening intently to his fingers at play in the bathtub.

"I can still see him," Helen whispered, later.

"All the time," Garp said. "I know."

But Duncan said it best. Duncan said that sometimes it was as if his missing right eye was not entirely gone. "It's like I can still see out of it, sometimes," Duncan said. "But it's like memory, it's not real - what I see."

"Maybe it's become the eye you see your dreams with," Garp told him.

"Sort of," Duncan said. "But it seems so real."

"It's your imaginary eye," Garp said. "That can be very real."

"It's the eye I can still see Walt with," Duncan said. "You know?"

"I know," Garp said.

     —John Irving, The World According to Garp, 1976

This is from about halfway through Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things:
She was surprised at the extent of her daughter's physical ease with him. Surprised that her child seemed to have a sub-world that excluded her entirely. A tactile world of smiles and laughter that she, her mother, had no part in. Ammu recognized vaguely that her thoughts were shot with a delicate, purple tinge of envy. She didn't allow herself to consider who it was that she envied. The man or her own child. Or just their world of hooked fingers and sudden smiles.

The man standing in the shade of the rubber trees with coins of sunshine dancing on his body, holding her daughter in his arms, glanced up and caught Ammu's gaze. Centuries telescoped into one evanescent moment. History was wrong-footed, caught off guard. Sloughed off like an old snakeskin. Its marks, its scars, its wounds from old wars and the walking-backwards days all fell away. In its absence it left an aura, a palpable shimmering that was as plain to see as the water in a river or the sun in the sky. As plain to feel as the heat on a hot day, or the tug of a fish on a taut line. So obvious that no one noticed.

In that brief moment, Velutha looked up and saw things that he hadn't seen before. Things that had been out of bounds so far, obscured by history's blinkers.

Simple things.

For instance, he saw that Rahel's mother was a woman.

That she had deep dimples when she smiled and that they stayed on long after her smile left her eyes. He saw that her brown arms were round and firm and perfect. That her shoulders shone, but her eyes were somewhere else. He saw that when he gave her gifts they no longer needed to be offered flat on the palms of his hands so that she wouldn't have to touch him. His boats and boxes. His little windmills. He saw too that he was not necessarily the only giver of gifts. That she had gifts to give him, too.

This knowing slid into him cleanly, like the sharp edge of a knife. Cold and hot at once. It took only a moment.

Ammu saw that he saw. She looked away. He did too. History's fiends returned to claim them. To re-wrap them in its old, scarred pelt and drag them back to where they really lived. Where the Love Laws lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.

Ammu walked up to the verandah, back into the Play. Shaking.

     —Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, 1997

About a quarter of the way into Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children, the narrator describes his mother's experience of being pregnant with him:
By the time the rains came at the end of June, the foetus was fully formed inside her womb. Knees and nose were present; and as many heads as would grow were already in position. What had been (at the beginning) no bigger than a full stop had expanded into a comma, a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter; now it was bursting into more complex developments, becoming, one might say, a book - perhaps an encyclopedia - even a whole language . . . which is to say that the lump in the middle of my mother grew so large, and became so heavy, that while Warden Road at the foot of our two-storey hillock became flooded with dirty yellow rainwater and stranded buses began to rust and children swam in the liquid road and newspapers sank soggily beneath the surface, Amina found herself in a circular first-floor tower room, scarcely able to move beneath the weight of her leaden balloon.

Endless rain. Water seeping in under windows in which stained-glass tulips danced along leaded panes. Towels, jammed against window-frames, soaked up water until they became heavy, saturated, useless. The sea: grey and ponderous and stretching out to meet the rainclouds at a narrowed horizon. Rain drumming against my mother's ears, adding to the confusion of fortune-teller and maternal credulity and the dislocating presence of strangers' possessions, making her imagine all manner of strange things. Trapped beneath her growing child, Amina pictured herself as a convicted murderer in Mughal times, when death by crushing beneath a boulder had been a common punishment . . .

     —Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children, 1980

And lastly . . . here are the opening lines of Gore Vidal's novel Myra Breckinridge, told in the first person by a post-op MTF transwoman with an extraordinarily large ego:
I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess. Clad only in garter belt and one dress shield, I held off the entire elite of the Trobriand Islanders, a race who possess no words for "why" or "because." Wielding a stone axe, I broke the arms, the limbs, the balls of their finest warriors, my beauty blinding them, as it does all men, unmanning them in the way that King Kong was reduced to a mere simian whimper by the beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile if the key light is no more than five feet high during the close shot.

The novel being dead, there is no point to writing made-up stories. Look at the French who will not and the Americans who cannot. Look at me who ought not, if only because I exist entirely outside the usual human experience . . . outside and yet wholly relevant for I am the New Woman whose astonishing history is a poignant amalgam of vulgar dreams and knife-sharp realities (shall I ever be free of the dull lingering pain that is my peculiar glory, the price so joyously paid for being Myra Breckinridge, whom no man may possess except on her . . . my terms!). Yet not even I can create a fictional character as one-dimensional as the average reader. Nonetheless, I intend to create a literary masterpiece in much the same way that I created myself, and for much the same reason: because it is not there. And I shall accomplish this by presenting you, the reader (as well as Dr, Randolph Spenser Montag, my analyst friend and dentist, who has proposed that I wrote in this notebook as therapy), with an exact, literal sense of what it is like, from moment to moment, to be me, what it is like to possess superbly shaped breasts reminiscent of those sported by Jean Harlow in Hell's Angels and seen at their best four minutes after the start of the second reel. What it is like to possess perfect thighs with hips resembling that archetypal mandolin from which the male principle draws forth music with prick of flesh so akin - in this simile - to pick of celluloid, blessed celluloid upon which have been imprinted in our century all the dreams and shadows that have haunted the human race since man's harsh and turbulent origins (quote Lévi-Strauss). Myra Breckinridge is a dish, and never forget it, you motherfuckers, as the children say nowadays.

     —Gore Vidal, Myra Breckinridge, 1968

4-Were you raised with religion? If yes, which one? And, what drove you from it? If no, at what point did you decide to at least educate yourself about various faiths?

No, I wasn't raised with religion. My mother was raised a Catholic and my father was raised an only-occasionally-practicing Congregationalist (this church is the modern descendant of the Puritan church), but by the time I was born, both my parents were agnostics. I heard the name "God" used from time to time, but by the point in time when my nursery-school teacher assigned the class to "draw God" with crayons one day, the only impression I'd gathered of this "God" person was that he was some really powerful man, apparently. I didn't know he was supposed to be anything other than human until I went home after nursery-school that day and asked my mother who he was. She said some people believed there was a magical man in the sky who created everything, but that I could decide for myself whether or not I believed in such a thing. I told her this was ridiculous, because even I, at the age of around three and a half years old, knew that magic wasn't real. My mother replied that I might change my mind some day. I told her I wouldn't. I didn't.

As for deciding to educate myself about various faiths - frankly, I never have. To the extent that I've been educated about them at all, it hasn't been on purpose. I do like to read about other cultures in general, and often in books about other cultures, the religions of those cultures will be described too, and I don't skip over those pages - but those pages are never the reason I'm reading the book. I find reading about religions very boring, in the same way that I find it boring to read too many pages in a row about what other people dreamed last night. Occasionally I may come across an exceptionally well-written and somewhat interesting dream, but the percentage of writings about dreams that really interest me is significantly smaller than the percentage of writings about real life that do.

5-I've seen all the newspaper links on your journal page. Is that pretty much where your news comes from? Do you listen to the radio or watch television at all?

I think the last time I watched any television news was on September 11th, 2001. The last time I listened to any radio news was even longer ago. I get all my news from Google News, supplemented occasionally with direct visits to the BBC News and CNN websites. I actually hardly ever make use of the links in the sidebar of my journal, except when I'm updating them. They're nice to have around though, and at least on the rare occasions when I check to make sure the links still work, listing them does cause me to bother reading news from some news sources I wouldn't otherwise be likely to stumble across.
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