Corinne Manning’s debut short story collection We Had No Rules (Arsenal Pulp Press) is at once a comedy of manners, and a clear-eyed look at survival amid the pressures and transgressions of capitalism. Manning writes like the love child of Monique Wittig and Jeanette Winterson; sexy, brutal, and funny as hell. The collection dazzles with its sly wit and revolutionary intent. On May Day I caught up with Manning to talk about her work.
Cara Hoffman The act of dressing up shines like a metallic thread through this novel; suspenders, gangster hair, fur streaked with red paint, sequined masks, hot pink tights, chaps, sparkly underwear, even a full Chewbacca suit. Talk to me about costumes.
Corinne Manning I love walking down the street and seeing someone flamboyantly dressed because it feels like a brief intervention like, Wake up! You are in the world, you are not the walking-dead. Dressing up as characters or even putting on a wig and a wild outfit helps me find my gender, it helps me find my body. I think femme identity (which is generally so looked down upon and hated and subject to violence), can be such a relief especially when it’s outlandish. So defiant! My characters are looking for their bodies, they’re reacting against a gaze that isn’t their own; by dressing up they can grab hold of how they are seen, and how they’ve been socialized to see themselves.
CH You play with identities and guises that define queer life. I’m thinking of the story “90 Days” and the post-transition revelation of the former lover: “I think I’m a very serious person and might want an MBA or something” and the satirical idea in that story about a “queer board of directors.”
CM When I wrote “90 Days” I was thinking about the ways in which femme identity is a huge source of desire and objectification but often isn’t valued in community—masculine privilege still takes center stage. This may be shifting, due to the work of trans femmes of color, but at the time I wrote this, I was seeing high femmes being treated like they were dumb. I noticed that when I “masced up,” cut my hair, became more androgynous, I got a lot more attention and recognition and respect within community. And don’t you think there is a queer board of directors looking down at us? Giving out A+ grades for not marrying and having arm tattoos, and policing our desires?
CH I do. We’re caught between that QBD and the assimilationist “accomplishments” of marrying, buying a house, becoming a CEO, joining the military … A friend recently said he thinks queer life as depicted in contemporary literature is caught in a virgin/whore dichotomy, the kind that erased nuanced depictions of women for centuries.
CM Yeah, that erases the complexity of humans and makes it be possible to be variations of both—things that no one imagined before. It’s dangerous how we associate sexuality with radicalism or change.
CH The collection deals with intergenerational conflicts among queer folks; with different ideologies and approaches to living. This is especially true when you’re writing about AIDS. My generation experienced the disease as a death sentence for nearly everyone who tested positive. I think about David Wojnarowicz’s words, “When I contracted this virus it didn’t take me long to realize I had contracted a diseased society as well.” Is there an element of radicalization that’s been lost for queer folks coming of age after the advent of antiretrovirals, and PrEP?
CM I was born in 1983 and all my experiences of the news were of AIDS and the war in Iraq. Being gay, especially a gay man, was synonymous with death and the virus. If someone “looked gay” I thought they were sick, because that was the way homophobia dominated the school ground. In first grade I came home crying, because these kids cornered me and told me I had AIDS. I grew up being told to cover the toilet seat because AIDS might be in pee splashes.
The protease inhibitors that slowed the virus came out when I was thirteen, but I had no idea this had happened. It was actually someone from your generation, a gay man, who told me around the time I was twenty that people weren’t really dying from it anymore—by which he meant white gay men. And yet it was also folks from your generation like Sarah Schulman and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore that kept my thinking about AIDS radicalized—by which I mean grounded: we still don’t have a cure. For queer unhoused youth and in particular youth of color it’s still a death sentence.
CH Some of your characters feel the legacy of AIDS almost like a war they missed—and there’s ambivalence there, as they go to fundraisers or meet older gay men—not just a sense of having dodged a bullet. I think of lines from your stories like “Brian and I fuck but we aren’t Gay yet. We tiptoe on the periphery of the world.” And “The rules of heterosexuality draped over us like a shroud.”
CM Yes, people of my generation, gay or otherwise, don’t know about ACT UP until we read about it or another generation tells us. I think this nostalgia comes up, for white middle and upper class queers in particular, because we aren’t seeing mass death in our daily lives. It’s the illusion of safety, the illusion of acceptance. I see that time period often sparking nostalgia instead of rage that we don’t have a cure, and that’s not only a generational divide but part of the myth that bad things pass, that if we are in relationships that are recognizable to the dominant culture we are protected.
We are living with a new virus, and again because of government neglect, we have mass death on a large scale. As Trump said, actually kind of adequately, “We have people dying that have never died before.” We know that means white celebrities, that means white middle and upper class people. To open up the economy too soon is a call for death, and as pointed out to me by the writer Erin Sroka, for states to open up their economies this way is an enormous white supremacist act. First responders, including janitors and service workers are primarily immigrant, Black and Brown people, and the white working class. This nation has always been okay with certain people dying. I want to see more people from my generation looking toward ACT UP as the kind of ancestral power and rage that keeps them going. We’ve had collectivity and power before, maybe there is a chance we can reclaim this collectivity and power again.
CH I hope you’re right. And I hope more people turn to the tactics of ACT UP which are some of the best models we have for confronting the state.
You have reoriented the world so thoroughly in We Had no Rules; that when your straight characters from different generations speak, it’s still within a queer context, and in some stories, you break down the rules of narrative entirely.
CM Part of that had to do with my own version of putting on a costume or fighting a gaze in order to write these stories. These stories were a method for me to write my way out of my homophobia and femmephobia—in order to allow myself to write about lesbians or queer femmes wanting queer femmes, I had to break the wall. The work of revision, with Shirarose Wilensky at Arsenal Pulp Press, was about deciding when that wall really needed to be broken.
CH You also write eloquently about familial hurt and familial caretaking. The father at the funeral who knows his daughter will only eat after he’s taken a bite, and feeds her bite by bite, the big sister who sets down rules and then teaches the little sister they’re not what she thinks. Can you talk about how these characters survive family and are shaped by it?
CM Thank you for noticing that moment of tenderness with the father and daughter. The contradictions within familial relationships (chosen and of origin) continually inspire me. We can really hate each other or not know how to bridge a conflict and yet we can know and enact one another’s most intimate care needs. We learn about complicity and how to treat the people we love through our families, and our families learn how to act as a way to survive under a government that has never admitted accountability to anything. As a writer I soothe myself by zeroing in on these moments when we demand to be forgiven without having ever been accountable to one another or how difficult it is to hold harm and care simultaneously.
CH This comes up in the coziness of the collection. The Knights of Columbus dance class, the sense of sitting at the kitchen table listening to gossip—so much of this work feels tied to cozy middle-class traditions or to transgressions that have become their own traditions—a coziness of outsiders and chosen families. Can you talk about the complexities of community and legacy in your work?
CM Isn’t it interesting that coziness can be violent? Or that we learn coziness from the people who hurt us most? I grew up in a working-class to middle-class Italian family and this coziness of culture and tradition still affects me and is often the thing I crave in my friendships and chosen family. I’m always observing those moments as a writer. I think about I think about Lauren Berlant’s idea of cruel optimism—that in order to be optimistic we have to see other people suffering, other people that aren’t us. I think our families of origin set us up for what we think is cozy and safe and then we are at risk of enacting that in the communities we create. As a writer I’m continually searching for those moments where our chosen families can defy these guidelines, or embrace them in ways that change their original intent.
CH There is the brilliant way you use the term capitalist in the context of possessiveness and loss in a relationship, as in the phrase “a frustrated capitalist sense of longing that translated to anger.” Themes of gentrification and complicity run through the collection—mostly in relation to setting. You’ve written characters who are at once privileged and subjects of discrimination. What are your thoughts on the practice of policing individual privilege at this point in history?
CM My best friend works for a union and we were talking about precarity right now, and how middle-class writers don’t realize that they are facing precarity in a similar way that essential workers are. Here, we have the contradictions that many people, especially the white queers in my book have to deal with: they are hated by the dominant culture and they are privileged. The characters in this book are struggling with how to hold this contradiction and avoid aligning with forces that harm immigrants and Black and Indigenous and People of Color—forces that are hostile to these characters as well. We are all socialized into policing, and so of course this is going to play out in our conflicts with one another in social justice settings. I know that in addition to being a writer I am a working-class teaching artist who had a lot of opportunities because my southern Italian family successfully assimilated to whiteness. My job as an art maker and as a human is to align with the precarity that all of us face under capitalism.