The year 2013 is shaping up to be an important one when it comes to queer memoirs, with books by Barrie Jean Borich, Rigoberto González and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore at the forefront. Sycamore’s non-traditional memoir, “The End of San Francisco” (City Lights Books, 2013), flows stylistically from stream of consciousness to rant to stage dialogue. A cross between an activist handbook and a cautionary tale about activism, it is a queer travelogue that includes stops in a number of LGBT-friendly metropolises.
Sycamore spoke recently about his work.…
Gregg Shapiro: Congratulations on your book “Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?” being a Lambda Literary Award finalist.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: “Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?” is also an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book, and I’m really excited by all the attention it’s receiving. It was actually a hard book to get published, so it’s gratifying to see reviewers, librarians, booksellers, awards judges and other readers relating to both its strident stance and the vulnerability of the essays by the 30 different authors inside. I meant this book as an emergency intervention in the morass of consumerist gay culture, and I really feel like it is making an impact.
As someone who has written fiction and non-fiction, why did you choose to write “The End of San Francisco” in the form of an unconventional memoir?
I wanted to make this story as vulnerable as possible. I think that conventional memoirs adhere to a formulaic narrative, and I wanted to resist that tidy linear path, but at the same time this book obsesses over my formations, and their undoing. I keep circling around the moments that have made me – socially, politically, sexually, emotionally, ethically – and for me that’s what makes it nonfiction, even though it’s structured more like an experimental novel.
Is your goal as a writer to give a voice to an unheard population?
I think that’s fair – I think that the queer voices that mean something to me are almost always shut out of mainstream gay and straight discourse. It’s important to me to break down the fence that separates those that matter from those that don’t.
In the chapter that shares its title with the book, you wrote, “We were the first generation of queers to grow up knowing that desire meant AIDS meant death.”
I’m glad you’re calling attention to that line. To me it’s a really crucial place in the book where I talk about this “we” of queer freaks and outsiders and whores and vegans and anarchists and dropouts and activists trying to survive in the face of so much death, both internal and external. I think that’s had as much impact on me as anything else – that and growing up as an incest survivor and seeing how my parents’ professional and financial “success” enabled them to camouflage their abuse so successfully.
You write about the outsiders’ need to assimilate. Do you fault the LGBT community for trying?
I do. The way I see it, assimilation is violence. The violence of arresting homeless queers for getting in the way of happy hour. Of evicting people with AIDS and seniors in order to increase property values. Of pushing everyone aside who doesn’t belong instead of making more space for those on the margins. It makes me so sad to see marriage and military inclusion championed as the dominant goals of the so-called “LGBT movement.” We need to get back to fighting for gender, sexual, social and political self-determination for everyone. As a start.
In the chapter “What We Were Creating,” you write about “the end of San Francisco as a place where marginalized queers could try to figure out a way to cope.” In truth, the same thing was occurring in queer neighborhoods across the country. Do you think that there was anything that could be done to slow or prevent it, other than the methods that you and your allies employed?
What breaks my heart the most is that so many gay neighborhoods were formed initially because queers didn’t have spaces where they could express themselves, where they could find one another for sexual merrymaking and risk-taking on their own terms. But what has happened in cities across the U.S. is that these same gay neighborhoods now police the borders so that only those willing or able to conform to upper-middle-class white norms are allowed. Can you imagine how different these places could be if homeless queer youth, trans people, people with disabilities, seniors, welfare queens, migrants – if all these people were at the center?
The book begins and ends with your biological family, which is an interesting way to frame what occurs between the pages, particularly because incest and confrontation are central to the story. Do you know if any of your family members have read the book?
My mother had a particularly interesting response. She said that because of the way I write without the conventional boundaries of plot structure, the separation between what happens in the book and herself as a reader wasn’t there. She said she felt immersed, like she was in a movie. This is in spite of her unwillingness to acknowledge the abuse that frames the story, her own role or my father’s. Still she was able to appreciate the writing on the terms I intend, and I find that kind of exciting.
On the shelf: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore appears at UW-Madison on Oct 3. For more, go to mattildabernsteinsycamore.com.