MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author of three novels and two nonfiction titles, and the editor of five nonfiction anthologies. Her new book, The Freezer Door, described by Maggie Nelson as “a book about not belonging that left me feeling deeply less alone,” will be published by Semiotext(e) on November 24, 2020. Sycamore’s most recent novel, Sketchtasy (Arsenal Pulp Press 2018), was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2018. Her memoir, The End of San Francisco (City Lights 2013), won a Lambda Literary Award. And her most recent anthology, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform (AK Press 2012), was an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book.
Originally published on November 6, 2020
Salome Kokoladze: Your latest book, The Freezer Door reminded me that desires and dreams are located not just inside the body. To dream in the city and to dream are predicated by or inseparable from dreaming of the city. How do we keep dreaming/desiring if cities are constantly strategizing against its own inhabitants, especially marginalized inhabitants?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: To me, the dream of the city is that you will find everyone and everything that you never imagined. But our gentrified cities of today foreclose this possibility more than they allow it. People walk around with gates in their eyes instead of an openness to experience or surprise or that sudden moment that might change everything. I still want that moment to be possible. Those moments, I want them all. But I worry that the density of urban imagination has instead become a walled-off mindset, a suburbanized way of looking at the world that doesn’t allow us to dream, or not to dream wildly enough. But I still believe in the city if we let down our guard and allow the unexpected in. I think this has happened with protest during the pandemic, right? To hear a sudden cry of Black Lives Matter and rush outside to join in, to scream with our neighbors every day at 8 pm in support of essential workers, or to yell Abolish the Police, or just to yell, to sigh, to let it all out, to join one another, to breathe, to expand the possibilities for connection in spite of everything that wants us to disappear, this is the dream of the city.
SK: As I was reading The Freezer Door, I thought about plant seeds and branches my mom collects around my hometown, Batumi. She has grown trees in plastic containers from what she finds and by now she has so much of the vegetation of our parks (variety of palm trees, olives, etc.). The yearning to propagate outdoors into indoors, external into internal, public into private, can involve a sort of an inherent failure (caricaturing), but it can also be essential in resisting isolation. What I see in your work is this, but also a reversal of the process: taking the most intimate parts of ourselves and attempting to propagate them outdoors, into the public. Can you talk about what this process means to you and why this sort of “propagation” is essential in countering the suburban fears that seize the urban environments?
MBS: One of my favorite things about Seattle is the trees. Something that would just be a bush somewhere else, it’s this giant thing. There are so many huge trees behind buildings, towering above. I feel such a closeness to them, and I think that plays a role in The Freezer Door, right? As well as the sex that happens under cover of the trees, when I hope it will connect me to myself, when it does and it doesn’t. But this isn’t the fault of the trees.
I believe that desire should be a public force, not something private or privatized, not just an individual feeling but a collective act. The city to me means what happens outside with other people, not just what happens inside. I’m always in search of those sudden moments of connection — across identity, beyond routine, outside of the scripted. And yet so often this kind of intimacy feels impossible in our current gentrified cities. But at least in Seattle, when people let me down, I always have the camaraderie of the trees.
SK: When I first came to the US one of the points the queer-feminist discourse emphasized that inspired me was the necessity to get paid for the labor that went unnoticed as labor before. After a while though I couldn’t stop feeling that this demand sometimes led to saying “capitalize on everything you do”. Is this belief a survival strategy in a country that lacks adequate social programming, or is it a belief that maintains the status quo of privatized aspirations and prevents relationships that are borne out of desire, rather than opportunism?
MBS: Obviously there’s so much wealth in this country, and it goes to so few people. And it goes to the military and weapons of mass destruction, policing, surveillance, prison profiteering, and every other horrible exploitative institution or industry. So it’s clear that we need redistribution of these resources so that everyone can thrive. Even if we cut the military budget by half, we’d have all the resources we need for universal housing and healthcare, free public transportation, healthy food for everyone, and on and on. I say this first because the issue is a structural one. And also it’s about value — to take one example, artists in this country are not valued unless we are commoditized, and once your work is commoditized it’s dead. So I would say that we all have the right to make the work that gives us meaning, that helps us to survive, and that we should not be forced to economic desperation in order to do that. Paying people for marginalized or stigmatized work can be a crucial tool for individual autonomy and survival, but the larger solution has to be a structural one if our goal is communal care. Let’s work to abolish all the institutions that oppress us, so that they don’t continue to destroy lives, and drain resources from everything that matters. And, at the same time, let’s create alternatives to support one another on our own terms, not just the sad terms that the brutal world around us demands.
SK: There is a moment in The Freezer Door, where you connect nostalgia with hope (61). You resist or don’t trust either of them. When I first learned the word nostalgia, it was in a literature class, reading short stories by a Georgian writer who has emigrated from the country. I always thought migration and nostalgia were inseparable. Nostalgia cradled the incessant longing for home. The state of nostalgia is the state of denying both the past and the present, because they are too overwhelming; the denial gives birth to hope. I understand why it is important to keep the past raw, to cultivate honesty, to find new strategies to look the present in the eye. But do you think we should always resist nostalgia? Can nostalgia sometimes be a way to not give up on places/spaces/people we have left behind?
MBS: I would never suggest that anyone give up on a survival strategy that is working, and you describe nostalgia as it relates to migration so beautifully here. I believe we need to honor and mourn and remember the past, not a romanticized or simplified version but the actual experience in all its nuance and complication. And I think nostalgia doesn’t allow this. Nostalgia offers a mythology of a past that never existed, and as long as we are stuck in that imagined past, we can’t create a future that works. I think when you say the denial gives birth to hope, I would say that if hope is predicated on denial, it isn’t really hope. Denial prevents change, prevents meaningful connection, it prevents accountability. I like to think that the antidote to nostalgia is truth. If we can truly face our experiences in all their messiness, trauma, depth of feeling, impact, frustration, devastation, and possibility, then maybe we can actualize our dreams.