Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
On Clowning, Magic, and their BUNKERSLUTS collaboration.
My apartment is stuffed with Yelena Moskovich paintings. Above my vanity, a vertical triptych of oil-on-photograph images, scrawled with writing: “ange tropique,” “I wish you were here I wish you were here I wish you were her,” and “horny femme4femme.” The playful movement across registers, media, and languages is typical of Moskovich’s work: a practice of freedom whose meaning is sex, and whose sex activates a universe of secret meanings. This, I take it, is part of the point of her newest novel, A Door Behind a Door (Two Dollar Radio) whose title names a threshold entailed by a prior threshold, a regression sequence of ingresses, penetrations, immigrations. The novel comprises a set of short paragraphs written under even shorter headings. Sometimes the relationship between the two feels like that between a narrator and a character; sometimes like an editor and an author; sometimes like the script of a play. But the relation between the two types of text, bold and roman, remains consistently available to the text’s universalizing, yet for that reason emphatically queer and lesbian, erotic. Underneath the heading “HORIZON,” it reads, in quotation marks, “See I’m wet all the fucking time.” Moskovich draws on Clarice Lispector, Sophie Calle, and even Pauline Réage, as she moves around the page, the body, the world.
Fitting, then, that Moskovich is a creature of such mobility in her own body. When we met, in Paris around 2006, she was studying at the École Internationale Jacques Lecoq. Our friendship was kind of one-sided, I think. I was entranced by her. I still am. But a few years later, when I’d found my own ways to learn some of her mobility (though not with my creaky old blubbery body), we reconnected, and, I guess, found that we had a lot that we wanted to share. In the early days of lockdown, Yelena and I started sharing cute, sexy pictures of each other, across the Atlantic, and then she asked me to collaborate with her on what I still think is one of the greatest ideas of the coronavirus age: BUNKERSLUTS. So in April 2020, we started an Instagram account with that name, and posted pictures of queer people aged twenty-five and over, in some kind of sexy lockdown pose: a delicately placed tube of bleach wipes, a thong made out of a face mask. One enterprising young woman had sent in, and we succeeded in posting, a picture of herself with a half-drunk bottle of a certain beach beer inside her vagina. “Fuck Corona” was probably the message. For the two weeks until Instagram decided that they’d had enough of our nonsense, and shut us down pronto. It is one of the proudest collaborations of my career. This summer, we talked a bunch about our bodies, our art, our shared sense of magic, and clowns (which are also one of the major topics of my forthcoming memoir, Please Miss). Here is a transcript of our conversation.
Grace Lavery I want to begin where you often do: with the body. We met over a decade ago when you were at the Jacques Lecoq school for physical theater, clowning, and mime education. You’ve always been someone with a consummate sense of physical poise, of the dynamics of bodily movement, and a great capacity for creating meanings and moments. Even more than that, you’ve always been someone who seems to take great pleasure in doing so. I’d love to hear about how you put your body into writing. How are your novels the work of a trained clown?
Yelena Moskovich The origin of origins, our very first mask: the body. This is what drew us to each other. Though Lecoq is known as a “mime and clown” school, it was actually founded on the principles of physical therapy and athletics and is extremely rigorous about each gesture or movement and what emotional energy it draws in space. There is something near-religious about the method. These two intensive years of the program—housed in an old boxing center—gave me a fundamental nomenclature for storytelling. No reading material, no notes. Every day we experienced language with our bodies. It’s the same space I try to propose for my reader. Language as an experience. I want words to go beyond themselves. Isn’t that what we are all desiring with our own bodies? At least those aware of our bodies as conditional, as carrying meaning that we never agreed to, as limited storytellers. This is not an abstract term. It’s an intuitive yearning.
GL I love what you say about finding a way to make meaning without language, using only the body. I have such memories of watching rehearsals for the sketches you all would put up each Friday. I forget the word now.
YM Autocours, meaning self-class. In addition to our regular classes, here we were given a theme and form and a couple of guidelines, had to split into groups, and create a small performance to show every Friday in front of the panel of professors, then a select number where shown to the public at our open house. Every second onstage had to be juste (right) in the Kairos sense (a Greek concept of time, meaning the opportune time for something to happen).
GL I remember. Watching those shows, I used to feel so envious of what felt like a kind of embodiment utterly beyond my reach, utterly athletic and free. I realized even then that the freedom was purchased with tremendous discipline, but it took me years to realize that it was a discipline to which even I could submit myself. My own book, Please Miss, organizes much of its work around an analogy between trans femininity and clowning.
YM Clowning is such a foundational venue for identity. It’s also how I write. I’m clowning language. I really admire you in this respect. Academia and the intellectual sphere create big heads without bodies, but you’re someone who is able to so joyfully straddle both worlds, if you will, critical thought and critical presence. How do you navigate existing within academia while also trying to subvert some of that very structure or language (and doing it with style)?
GL That’s so kind. In a sense, I discovered my own work methods through theater—as a student, I bunked off classes to make performance pieces with my brilliant friends, many of whom are still doing magically creative and important work. I was at college with Seiriol Davies, a British theater-maker whose work I adore, and we made wonderful work together that fused techniques of embodied exploration, conventional research, and some esoteric Invisibles-style wankathon arcana.
YM I don’t know their work, but I desperately want to take a wankathon arcana course, which I hope includes actual masturbation to tarot cards.
GL The wankathon was discussed in the pages of The Invisibles, an esoteric comic book by Grant Morrison that merged traditional British magic like that of Aleister Crowley with an anarchist-communist queer punk/cyberpunk ethos, but in the style of a superhero comic. The magical practice discussed in and around the book involved masturbation: you would write out a wish, rearrange the letters of that wish until they made a spooky-looking shape, and then masturbate while looking at the shape.
The idea is that the orgasmic energy would “launch” the “sigil,” and the wish would come true. There was a lot of discourse in the descriptions of these events of “just try it! it sounds crazy but it definitely will work!” So, of course, I did and it did. I was wishing to be relieved of an allergic reaction to the dust in my mother’s house, which happened, but then twice the following day I was hospitalized for minor injuries: the first time after putting my hand through a glass door, and the second time after pressing whoosh while cleaning off the blade of an immersion blender. The lesson I took from the experience was “don’t mess with the occult,” which I mostly don’t. I occasionally pray to Satan when I’m stressing out, though: my experiences in recovery taught me the value of prayer as a mental stabilizer, but I can’t bring myself to say “God,” so I turn my mind towards the adversary.
My approach to my scholarly work derives as much from those adventures as from my professional training—the figures of learnedness that have always drawn me on are the doomed mages (Tom O’Bedlam and Miles Delacourt, say) and the experiential learners (like Ragged Robin and Lord Fanny). I know this all sounds horribly pretentious—when I was a graduate student, my advisor used to say “don’t say any of this stuff in a job interview”—but I do think of my research, like my transition and like my art, as attempts to access hidden and secret knowledge. I was drawn to psychoanalysis for the symbols and queer theory for the gossip.
YM I was just jazzing on this very topic in an article I wrote about the idea of going to Hell, my favorite journey, and the foundation of Russian literature. I think Slavs and queers both accept ourselves as “damned.” We are attuned to the sensual and esoteric landscape of our demons, the fury beneath the composition of our lives, the secretness of this strange, exposed pain. Even the Nietzschean “God is dead” and Sartrean “Hell is other people” don’t quite capture the gentleness and the beauty of the queer and Slavic sense of mortal exile. Of the West, I think Genet really got it. Hell is not a separate moral ground or an existential outburst. It’s a way of being horny. In A Door Behind A Door, many characters move between life and death, numbness and horniness, particularly the character Tanya who is literally dead and hornier than ever. The novel explores this very sense of Hell: the wetness of our melancholia, the stiffness of our shame, the rub of degradation against an everlasting innocence, the pure “badness” of our brave and frightened angels.
GL Oh, yum. I was thinking the other day that, as important as sex is to me, the one kind of touch I couldn’t abjure is cuddling. Yet cuddling doesn’t have a theory, yet—I write so much about fucking, and the plots it makes and unmakes, but I cuddle more than I fuck, and I lack a language for it.
YM It’s our illiteracy of intimacy. We learn closeness so often without ever truly being close. We spend our childhood creating ways to be as far away from ourselves as we can—we conjure an intimate elsewhere and roam this netherworld as reality. We die so young on this earth and continue our lives on an imagined plane of existence. As adults, we wonder why nobody can meet us there, why we can’t even find ourselves. On top of this, our consumerist society runs on emotional necromancy. We need to be dead or deadened to oblige. We destroy each other for the sake of being sexy, and the message is, it is not sexy to communicate, to reinvent language, to commit to the healing process. Because that threatens the whole affective power structure that sustains the way we dominate and deaden each other and ourselves. And yet, in our primordial gut, we know the truth. That healing is probably the sexiest fucking thing there is.
GL Maybe I’ll next try to write a book about non-sexual touch-intimacies (though I do love Adam Phillips’ book on tickling, and maybe he’s said everything that needs to be said). But sex is at the root of many of the projects upon which we embark—embodied meaning-making, experiential learning, multidimensional straddling. So, let’s talk about BUNKERSLUTS, our sole shared project to date (until this interview!). Maybe you could share a little about how it came about, and then the conversation we had.
YM BUNKERSLUTS came to life right at the beginning of the first confinement. A week or so before the Paris lockdown I found out my mom was diagnosed with cancer (a continent away), and then—the world was ending—and I was confining solo. I was feeling very single and motherless. I wanted to see boobs. Butts. Backs. Shoulders. Armpits. Toes. All the cracks. Tinder was popping. Everyone was on their phones in their apocalypse-prepped bunkers. So, I had the idea that there should be a “BUNKERSLUTS” space—where queer people can take slutty pandemic-themed photos and share. I could not think of a better slut partner in crime than you, Grace. Quarantined queers all over the world contributed. BUNKERSLUTS had an amazing run—though we were constantly being restricted and censored and eventually kicked off Instagram.
GL I’m so sorry about the feeling of motherlessness. I struggle with this too, though for reasons less literal than cancer: my mother and I often misunderstand each other, despite both really wanting (I think) to do better. There’s a line in Al-Anon literature that proposes that you should become your own loving mother, which I sometimes think trans women have taken especially keenly to heart. I have so many mother-types in my life, many of whom are around my age—including you—and plenty of them I have a vaguely flirty relationship with. I didn’t think about BUNKERSLUTS in terms of mothering at the time, but it makes sense to think of it that way now—care packages sent between anxious, horny queers. It also reminds me that I insisted on making a twenty-five-year-plus age limit for people sending us pics, especially since my social media presence is such a lightning rod for people on LGBT crusades. But you said that you hoped queer young people were finding community too.
YM This re-mothering experience is also about reframing the value of ‘self-gratification’, or pleasure as a form of connection, to the self or to the other, rather than a form of ownership or authority. Human warmth and its physical language were sadly expressed as currency in most households, it has been this way for generations. Finding meaningful ways to articulate touch (self-touch and virtual touch included) is actually part of the global healing process to the other underlying pandemic at hand: the standardized cruelty and domination as a form of bond-building (partnerships, families, communities, and countries).
GL It was so hard for so many of us to go without touch for so long––I think we’ll be talking about it for the rest of our lives. I know why it was necessary, and I’m not disputing that but it was extremely difficult, and the difficulty was hard to talk about.
YM How would you define “Slut” and “Slutiness?” Is it a term? concept? lifestyle? tonality? clown?—particularly in terms of a creative practice or creativity (including self-growth)?
GL This is what it means to me: a refusal to choose shame. Shame has been the secular religion of much queer writing, and I’m simply not interested in dwelling in it. As an active alcoholic and drug addict, shame was everywhere in my life: every feeling could be turned to shame—every desire, every action. I did shameful things—many of which I’ve had the opportunity to set right to the best of my ability, and plenty of which still cause me to cringe when my memory chances upon them. But what I learned was that the feeling of shame did not prevent me from acting shamefully—in fact, it was a titillating incentive to act in ways that would direct me towards the relatively familiar terrain that shame provided. Sobriety, and transition, have caused the world to explode with new feelings, plenty of them perfectly horrible, which have needed new words and frameworks. But I have only felt shame once since getting sober, and it was after a hookup with someone who treated me badly. I felt ashamed, despite knowing I hadn’t done anything wrong. Which means that shame is a useless guide to ethics, as well as a boring monopolizer of conversation.
YM I feel like each of our work engages with that contour of the sanctioned versus prohibited, that liminality between the sacred and the profane. How do you move around or within these delineations?
GL I’m aware that we are both playing with lines, in our art and in our general modes of being. As soon as I met you I realized that you had something I wanted: Your freedom, your physical volatility matched with masterful control. You were fidgety like me but had somehow transformed your fidgetiness into an instrument of great art. I haven’t managed to do that, though when I like my own prose style it’s because I’ve managed to collapse in a more or less graceful way. I have three roles: One, I am a fairly traditional scholar; two, I am an advocate and public nuisance; three, I am a creative writer.
The boundaries that exist in these three different practices are necessarily of different kinds, and sometimes this can get tricky for me. I’ve had to work out these boundaries in fairly provisional ways. I eventually decided I wasn’t prepared to suppress my creative work for the sake of my career or mold it into the bourgeois-masculine form of dry avant-gardism that universities license and lionize. I am aware that Please Miss will never be recognized as coeval with my research by my employer, but I didn’t want to write the kind of “creative nonfiction” that they might have recognized. I wanted to write a deranged, pornographic riot filled with clowns and fucking, and that’s what I did.
YM Grace, you are my immortal beloved BUNKERSLUT and muse.
GL God I love you, Yelena. Thank you so much for asking me to do this.
Please Miss by Grace Lavery is available for purchase here.
A Door Behind a Door by Yelena Moskovich is available for purchase here.
Grace Lavery is Associate Professor in the Department of English at UC Berkeley and general editor of Transgender Studies Quarterly. She is the author of Quaint, Exquisite: Victorian Aesthetics and the Idea of Japan (Princeton 2020), which won the NAVSA “Best Book of the Year” prize, and of Please Miss, an experimental memoir which will be published by Seal Press. Her essays have appeared in Critical Inquiry, Foreign Policy, Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, English Literary History, and elsewhere. She also writes a newsletter, The Wazzock’s Review. She is currently completing three books—a history of trans feminist techniques, an investigation of narrative closure in the age of the sitcom, and a spy thriller.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.