BOMB #154 Preview: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore by Amy Gall

In this excerpt from her interview in BOMB’s winter 2021 issue, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore discusses activism, gay bars, and her forthcoming book, The Freezer Door.

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There have been plenty of things to cry about in 2020, but I never thought a ten page conversation between an ice cube and an ice cube tray would be one of them. And yet there I was, tears blurring my vision as I read Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s latest book The Freezer Door (Semiotext(e)). “Tell me you love me, says the ice cube. I like you a lot, says the ice cube tray.”

The Freezer Door, Sycamore’s fifth book, appears deceptively simple: a series of short—sometimes a lone sentence at the top of the page—and seemingly unconnected bursts of writing. But it’s a dirty trick. I would read a short section and become so emotional I’d have to put the book down and leave the room. Like Maggie Nelson or Wayne Kostenbaum’s work, the complexity and power of The Freezer Door comes precisely from how tightly honed and spare the text is. 

It’s hard to say exactly what The Freezer Door is “about,” but the narrator’s ruminations—on everything from sex to the struggle to find other “queens and faggots” in the gay community to global warming—feel like a summation of what it’s like to be alive right now: lonely, adrift, but full of desire and yearning for change.

Sycamore, whom The Stranger once described as “a gender-fucking tower of pure pulsing purple fabulous,” spoke to me by telephone just a few weeks before the election. We talked about the books that made us feel like we could write about queerness as young adults, the ending of hierarchies in marginalized communities, and, of course, that ice cube tray.

—Amy Gall

Amy GallGay bars are one of the main settings of the book, and, in a way, your style of writing felt like when someone pulls you aside and tells you a story at a bar—there’s an intensity and intimacy, but it’s also overwhelming. It reminded me of a night when I was going to go out with my friends: a cis, straight, Black woman and a cis, gay, Black man—and I’m a white, cis lesbian—and we were all trying to figure out where we could be and have an equal chance of fucking someone and having a good time. And of course, that place doesn’t exist. But how do we work toward a place where cis and trans and straight and gay and Black and white could all share a space equally right now? Is that even what we’re working toward?

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore One of the things that forms the structure of The Freezer Door is an exploration that starts, accidentally, in this gay bar. I realize I’m trying to figure out a way to have fags in my life because in politicized queer worlds—especially in Seattle—fags do not exist. Politicized queer worlds have formed who I am and they’re the places I’ve always been drawn to for self-actualization, except I’m aware that bodies like mine are rarely around. I feel like my body will never have a home. If desire is what formed me as a queer person, politicized queer worlds are not the spaces that will allow my desire to thrive, not anymore. Gay bars are deeply apolitical, but, as I wrote in The Freezer Door, when I went to that gay bar for the first time, I was shocked to realize that I felt present through desire—there’s so much shame and shade and sadness among everyone there, but there’s also intimacy. And that’s when I realize this is the intimacy I need. So in some ways, the book explores spaces that I know are corrupt—in order to find what isn’t—because I’ve given up on the notion that there will ever be a space that isn’t corrupt. For me, the dream of queerness is one of creating space without borders—without policing, without the need to die in order to go on living. It’s a dream of a place for desire and lust and love and intimacy on our own terms. But I don’t think those spaces actually exist. Will there be a space for everyone? Will that space be safe for everyone who is marginalized? Everyone in the dominant culture already has space. We don’t need to create more space for them. We need to create queer spaces that are actually about ending policing and not creating different ways of policing. We need to end hierarchies instead of enacting new hierarchies. We need to create spaces where the rhetoric of inclusion and accountability and negotiation and intimacy and self-actualization through communal responsibility that is so beautiful and formed and formulated and gorgeous and inspiring is finally actualized. But we’re so far from that in our current moment, that I don’t even know where to start.

AGThe Freezer Door got me thinking about what my dream bar or dream club scenario would even be. When I step into a space, what do I want it to feel like? Your book is so much about feelings and the body, like, what do you want to feel like in your body? How do you want people to approach you?

MBS I think “What do you want to feel like in your body?” is the central question of the book. How do I get to a place where I always feel like I’m about to make out? That moment when you’re so present that the whole world is gone, but at the same time you’re still so present in the world. I want that space to exist out in the world, so you can encounter it walking down the street, or anywhere. I don’t want it to be a gated space in any way. Bars have their purpose, but they obviously have limitations. I just think by definition a place where people go to get smashed so they can lose their inhibitions in order to hook up is probably not going to be the best place to find meaningful connection. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be beauty there.

Seattle is an ironic place for me because people here are in an urban environment, but they act like they’re in the suburbs. They don’t want any unplanned interaction. They don’t want anything to jar them or make them uncomfortable or feel a little weird or even feel amazing and transformed. Those are the reasons to live in a city, at least for me. The dream of the city is that it’s a place where you find everything and everyone that you never imagined. When every thing is gated, that’s impossible. In Seattle, we have a term for this called the Seattle freeze. It’s like, you’re walking down the street and someone sees you, but they just look right through you with a white picket fence in their eyes. San Francisco is the city that formed me. What had always been unique for me about San Francisco was that I’d just walk down the street and find the people who recognized me, people who were like, You’re one of us—you’re outside of the world and we’re in the world together. But that’s so, so, so much harder to find there now. And that’s true of every gentrified city. In many ways, New York is the most obvious cautionary tale. New York was the city that formed so much of the dream of urban life, certainly for me. Now, you walk around so many places in New York and you could be in a suburban strip mall based on what the interactions are like, regardless of the surroundings.

One way to look at things is that when we are living in the dominant colonial power, our lives are predicated on the destruction of the entire world. But we still have to fight to make what we believe in possible anyway, to challenge the violence and create something else. Otherwise we can’t go on living.

AG Speaking of which, you were involved in activist groups like ACT UP and Fed Up Queers and Gay Shame. Has writing ever felt like activism to you? Given what you say about friendship in The Freezer Door, do you feel like writing has also become a kind of intimacy for you?

MBS I’m skeptical of the idea that writing something is the same thing as protest. I would never call my writing activism. When I was first entering the world as an avowedly queer person or even before that—when I was a teenager and not out—the most important thing for me was to project invulnerability. And that’s what saved me. I couldn’t have lived otherwise. As a kid, I was totally traumatized. You could just look at me and know I was abused. When I was twelve, I realized I would never be able to find the people who I could actually connect to if all they could see was that trauma. So I began cultivating a persona of invulnerability. I think when you try something on for long enough it becomes a reality in certain ways. I really wanted to help other marginalized kids to know that they could exist in the world. When I was like, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, I started being able to articulate to other kids that those pieces of shit who were telling us we don’t matter, they were the ones who didn’t need to matter, not to us. That was the invulnerability I was after.

At this point in my life, writing keeps me alive more than activism or even friendship because so much of what I believed in has fallen apart or let me down in ways that feel just as brutal or almost as brutal as the world I grew up in. Although now I write toward vulnerability. Vulnerability is what’s gonna save me. Being invulnerable is not going to help me connect with anyone anymore. With my writing, I want to say everything that makes me feel like I might die if I say it.

I think writing is a form of connection. It’s the connection to myself. It’s the connection to the world, the connection to loss. It’s the connection to longing, to desperation, to dissatisfaction, to loneliness, to intimacy, to touch. Writing itself is a form of touch, of desire, of devastation. The kind of intimacy that I get through writing is, in some ways, unparalleled. But I also want the rest of the intimacy, too.

AG Right, there’s plenty that writing can’t give. I’ve yet to, like, have an orgasm from writing.

MBS Let’s hope!

AG I mean really, if that were possible, it would solve problems for me. (laughter)

The Freezer Door made me think about the role of trauma and pain in becoming an empathetic person. Can we become flexible, kind, empathetic activists without trauma? On the one hand, nobody ever gives you that perfect amount of trauma that makes you care about other people and want justice without also breaking you in the process. On the other hand, as queer ness becomes more mainstream, I worry about complacency. The more comfortable someone is and the more access to power they have, the less likely they are to want to change the system that they fit into by fighting for the people that system leaves behind.

MBS I do think it’s possible to become an empathetic person without trauma, but I also think that’s rare. There are plenty of horrible people enacting violence all the time who also experienced trauma. I think the key is what you do with the trauma. Trauma doesn’t get us anywhere unless we can process it. For those who survived abuse as a child, the trauma doesn’t ever go away. It’s always there in some form. You figure out ways to move through it and ways to try to change the structures around you, whether that means intimately, interpersonally, politically, socially, or culturally.

AG This is sort of a hard turn, but would you call The Freezer Door a memoir?

MBS I would call it a lyric essay. The reason is because it’s broken. It circles around the gaps, and I’m in search of something I may never find. Also, I think a lyric essay can incorporate poetry, memoir, fiction, criticism, and everything in between and beyond, and that’s what I’m after—to expand the possibilities of feeling.

AG When you’re writing something that’s more straight fiction, do you approach it differently?

MBS Well, I don’t know if I write “straight fiction.” (laughter) I believe more in the porous ness of writing than in any kind of genre. I want things to break form, change form, and change us in the process. I’m not breaking form just to break form, but I’m breaking form to work toward an emotional opening. And a lot of that means showing the emotions closing off. I experiment because I want to get somewhere that I’ve never been.

A lot of writers—including writers I love—find something that works for them and do it over and over again. Now, I know I’m always going to be obsessed with the same themes, and I’m sure there are some people who are like, Oh my God, why is Mattilda writing about trauma again? Or about desire? Or about public sex? Or about sex work? Or about intimacy? Or about, you know, hating gay marriage? Or about chronic pain? Or about dancing? Or about drugs? Or about, you know, going on walks? Or about trying to exist in a city that no longer allows us to dream? Or about gentrification? Or about longing, or loss? Or about queerness? Or about failure? Or the hypocrisy of the liberal imagination? Or everything that lets us down? I’m not worried about writing the same themes, but I don’t want to write in the same way all the time. That’s what I like about language, about playing with language. I’m playing with repetition. I’m playing with sound and the texture of language and what meaning you can create from sensation and from experience and from cadence and from emphasis. Because meaning is not only what we impose or what we imagine. Meaning is what happens anyway.

The entirety of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s interview will appear in BOMB 154, our winter 2021 issue—subscribe today.

Join us for BOMB’s A Room with a View on December 1, when we’ll celebrate the release of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s new book The Freezer Door. The evening will be hosted by the author of Confessions of the Fox, Jordy Rosenberg. RSVP to receive a link to the event.

Amy Gall’s writing has appeared in Tin House, VICE, Glamour, Women’s Health, Poets & Writers, and the anthology Mapping Queer Spaces. Recycle, a book of collage and text she co-authored with Sarah Gerard, was published by Pacific Press in 2018. She is a MacDowell fellow and is currently working on a collection of linked essays about queer bodies and pleasure.

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