It’s Not Going to Go the Way You Think: Emerson Whitney Interviewed by Greg Mania

On writing felt-sense memories, attending philosophy camp, and the ever-changing nature of language.

Cover of Heaven by Emerson Whitney

When Marie Kondo said, “I love mess,” author and scholar Emerson Whitney felt that. In their new poetic memoir, Heaven (McSweeney’s) they write, “Really, I can’t explain myself without making a mess.” But reader, it will give you joy and you should keep it. The book is comprised of quick cuts, lyrical dives into memory, and oftentimes overlaps theory with the personal. Whitney does not shy away from plunging beneath the surface of gender and selfhood, to question the story of our bodies, to find comfort in the questions left unanswered. 

The beating heart of Heaven, however, is in the exploration of their relationship to their mother and grandmother. Through those relationships, Whitney maps a trajectory from their first glimpse into womanhood to transness to the ever-changing nature of self—and retraces those steps back again. Heaven is a toast to the incongruence of identity, the beauty of imperfection, the marriage of contradiction—an all-around messy and beautiful display of triumph. It’s a story told in fragments, but what is selfhood if not fragmented? 

Instead of putting the pieces together, consider why they have to go together at all in the first place. Whitney reminds us that they can coexist as a totality, in parts, or, sometimes, not fit together at all.

—Greg Mania


Greg Mania How has this book changed since you started writing it? Was your mother the focal point from the start?  

Emerson WhitneyThe core of the book has always been these felt-sense memories that seemed to make me up. And yep, mom starred in many of them. First, these pieces were disjointed poems and then fuller. I keep thinking of the Photoshop “paint bucket” tool (except I don’t have Photoshop, so I’m thinking more like ‘90s Microsoft Paint). This book started really piece-y, now it’s mostly filled out and colored in.

GM I love that this book was born from poems. Do you have any other poems that you think have the potential to become a book?

EW I often start in verse. My next book project started as a verse piece about locusts and is about to be this whole thing about storm-chasing and masculinity: 

I’ve been thinking about locusts when they swarm / They do it because of turning cannibal / Each one realizes it like threading tape, like legs getting all plied apart / I’ve been seeing grasshopper lollipops around again, like when everyone thought that show Fear Factor was so good / I’ve been seeing cricket dog food too, I haven’t seen one cricket in so long / I dream about them often, little desperate streaks on my windshield / I wet my fingers with my tongue / Locusts are grasshoppers that are trying to eat each other and outrun the eating at the same time, that’s the theory. 

GM I love that so much. Speaking of theory, you look at your life through a scholarly lens. How did your academic background help you structure this book, beyond the amalgamation of theory and memory? 

EWI love this question! I have such a ridiculous relationship to academia. I think I have to tell you this story:

I really struggled to finish high school and was in special education classes. I went to six different undergraduate colleges (couldn’t hack it). I finally graduated with a BA in 2011. I went to Goddard, the only place I could work full-time and go to school and they crunched all my credits. I never ever thought I’d get a PhD. Why am I telling you this? I was working full-time as a sports reporter on a random island when I graduated from college and this really nice lady there knew my story and offered to pay for me to go to grad school so I could stop spending seventy hours a week writing about children’s sports. I ended up going to CalArts for an MFA because it is one of the only (is it the only?) non-tracking creative writing programs in the US (meaning, you don’t have to pick a genre and you can play around with whatever).

After that, I was like, fuck, I don’t really know what anyone is talking about when they’re talking about theory, but I love reading this shit and I wanted to take philosophy classes at local colleges, but I couldn’t really make it work financially. So, I ended up looking into grad schools again, getting some more loans, and then I went to the European Graduate School, which is basically Goddard for PhDs. It’s philosophy camp. I could keep my jobs as an adjunct at a community college, and it was the only place on the planet that I could do an experimental writing project as part of my dissertation and not have to take a GRE, which I literally cannot do.

Standardized tests are not okay.

So, yeah. I LOVE READING AND LEARNING. Now, I fantasize about getting another PhD in linguistics (but probably won’t partially because of the GRE thing). The structure of this book is absolutely reflexive of this whole paradigm. I struggled so much with learning environments, but am wildly motivated to learn.

GM I actually relate to this. I got terrible grades in English in middle and high school. I hated writing because we were taught to write in a specific structure, and I could never crack it. It wasn’t until I took creative writing in college that I realized I have a voice and potential. Do you think a non-conventional approach to education, specifically writing, helped solidify your voice as a writer?

EW Absolutely! I’m so grateful that I couldn’t crack it either and just got to give up and drink black coffee from the teacher’s lounge after I got off work in the cafeteria and spend my time writing about everyone in my notebook. 

Photo of Emerson Whitney by Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Photo of Emerson Whitney by Paul Mpagi Sepuya.

GM Have you always had an interest in language and its origins? If so, when did it start and what specifically hooked you?

EWI always want to get to the beginning of things, or at least try. It’s connected to this answer about academia actually: I moved around a lot and always felt at school and in environments where understanding seemed to be collective, that I was missing the ground. Like, I remember cheating on a multiplication test in third grade and thinking, Look, I have no clue what y’all are doing. Everyone else seemed to know. When I teach, I think of this a lot. Etymology and word origins—particularly in the context of English, which is at its base, a language that has colonized and settled—doesn’t have a whole lot of “answers.” Still, I like the questions that this examination peels up.

GM You write that “the word trans will change in my lifetime, it’s inevitable.” How do you think it will change?

EW No clue! In this way, I’m speaking a little more to the evolving nature of language, like the meaning of “queer” has moved—language does this. I have friends who happily identify as “transsexual” because that was our word for a long time. I also have friends who’d find “transsexual” offensive, partially because “sex” and “gender” in that word are conflated.

GM Does “trans” exclude something for you, right now, that you hope it will embody as its meaning changes over your lifetime?

EW I don’t think there’s a stable enough definition of “trans” for me to even answer that, which is cool! “Transgender” is technically an umbrella term and includes a whole lot of gender-variance, the term itself is actually super expansive, so I have no idea where it will head or if the word “trans” itself stabilizes while gender itself moves. 

GM You write that you hang on to appearance. How can presentation of self—gender or otherwise—relieve us from the box that terminology can sometimes put us in? 

EW I think when I wrote “hang” I mean I stumble over appearance. I also mean that I’m held accountable to my appearance (and have very little control over it, actually) in a public sphere. Like we all are, probably. I don’t know if presentation can relieve us. I think about perception and the possibilities for “reading,” like what happens if we just look at each other like witnessing something undefinable? Could we stop there even for just a second before filtering what we’re seeing into systems—categories that nobody seemed to consent to in the first place—and that whole violence?

(I’m marking the violence here as nonconsensual categorization that privileges members with perceived belonging in dominant categories that target and oppress those who are systematically oppressed.)

GM You also write, “I can either try to fix the contradictions or embrace them.” How have you practiced this sentiment since writing it?

EW I hope that’s a daily practice. The “how” part is something I’m still working out. I believe in welcoming the discomfort of not knowing and the complicatedness of that: curiosity helps, so does noticing when I’m really trying to “figure it out” or force something to make sense. I have a good friend who regularly talks about having a sticky note on his bathroom mirror that says, “It’s not going to go the way you think,” and then another one on the front door that says, “It’s not going to go that way either.” I waste so much time trying to “fix” things that are totally out of my control. I hope to welcome the “break” that Fred Moten talks about, the tossed-up place of incongruence, and drop my expectations for total knowing and the perceived ease in there. 

GM You observe that a lot of contemporary trans literature leans towards coming-of-age themes and include the word “becoming” in the title, and if it’s not explicit it’s implied. How do you want to see trans literature move beyond the scope of becoming?

EW I’m super interested in those binaries that Luce Irigaray presents in Speculum of The Other Woman, that men (she’s specifically writing about cis-men and cis-women in my reading of this) get to “be” and “women” have to “become.” I’m very concerned with questions of agency and who gets to “be” in general. 

GM What kind of impact do you want your book to have in that space? 

EW I’m truly just so excited for folks to experience it. 

GM What have you learned about yourself while writing this book?

EW Well, I always get stuck on ideas of “self” because it’s so slippery. But in terms of craft, I learned to slow down. I tried to push this book out of the gate so many times before it was ready, and I literally just needed to sit on the material for years to let the thing sort of cook. That feels good to know now. In terms of being-ness—I just got loaded up with more questions, which also feels good.

Heaven is available for purchase here.

Greg Mania is the author of Born to Be Public, forthcoming from CLASH Books on August 25, 2020. Follow him on Twitter: @gregmania.

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