Amy Gall I was so relieved when you said you were calling from a landline because I can’t look at my face—ever again.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (laughter) I find Zoom completely stressful. I love the phone, but Zoom is exhausting.
AG How are you doing? Where are you?
MBS I’ve been here in Seattle throughout quarantine. The hard thing now is we have this horrible smoke from all the forest fires. It’s just like, How many more things are they gonna pile on?
AG I know, truly. I’m just waiting for the horsemen of the apocalypse to break down my door at this point. Have you been able to go outside?
MBS Even during the worst of it, I still went on walks, but it was horrible. It was like me and the dog walkers and people who couldn’t bear to be inside. I think the buildup from breathing all that smoke has affected my immune system and my health in general.
AG I’m on the East Coast, where even we had a couple of hazy days because the smoke traveled on the wind all the way here, which is wild to me. If this year could end tomorrow, I would be thrilled.
MBS Yeah, but it’s hard to say what the next year will bring!
AG I’m excited to talk to you. The Freezer Door was so great, in part because it exists in such a liminal space. It embraces aspects of poetry and memoir and fiction. The writing is accessible, yet there’s a degree of obfuscation and an ephemeral quality to it. It feels slippery and hard to hold, which made me want to pull it closer. I was wondering what you were thinking about when you were considering structure for the book.
MBS When I start writing a new book, I’m not thinking about what I’m doing. I just write and write, and I don’t take a look at the whole thing until I have a sense that I might have arrived somewhere—I never know where exactly, but a place where the text might reveal something surprising. Then I basically just cut and rearrange and cut and rearrange and cut—I’m a really neurotic editor. In the case of The Freezer Door, I probably wrote for a couple years before I thought of it as a potential manuscript. It was an absurd amount of text, something like a thousand pages, and I don’t consider that type of thing a draft, I consider it the material. I wrote it all in one continuous document at first, but as I edited, it became way more fragmented. I wasn’t imposing any kind of structure. It’s structured by feeling, and the breaks in the text are where there is a break in feeling, when the text can no longer hold—especially the parts that just break entirely and become a conversation between an ice cube and ice cube tray. (laughter) That narrative first starts after the line, “I don’t understand why nothing heals.” The feeling that one cannot exist in the world breaks the text, and the page ends there. The narrative switches to an ice cube and an ice cube tray who are in a relationship and trying to negotiate their intimacy. For me those sections function as an opening into a different way to feel. It’s funny, because I consider the book nonfiction. But is that nonfiction?
AG I’m sure it’s different for each book, but when you’re revising, how do you know you’re done?
MBS I edit by voice. Basically, I cut out anything that gets in the way of the voice. In this case it’s my voice, and I took out anything that was getting in the way of that intimacy. But it was tricky because there are parts of this book that are basically abstract, and I guess someone else could say that that’s not my voice. So in this case, I was done editing when I felt I had created a text that was its own world and wasn’t dependent on anything outside of it.
AG You talk so vulnerably and beautifully about what informed your sexuality and gender when you were a kid—which I really relate to. Do you remember reading books or authors when you were younger that made you realize you could write about sex or queerness or say faggot or whatever? Dorothy Allison was that person for me when I was probably twenty.
MBS When you said “when you were younger,” at first I thought you meant when I was a kid, and my answer would have been never. When I was a kid, there was definitely nothing accessible to me in which I could even dream of a world in which I could be queer. When I was twelve or thirteen I read War and Peace and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. I read Dostoyevsky. I was one of those kids who wanted to disappear into a book—I just wanted a book that took me out of the world that I was living in, which was too traumatizing.
I moved to San Francisco when I was nineteen and found other radical outsider queers, and incest survivors and dreamers and anarchists, and vegans and sluts and whores, and outcasts and dropouts. We would exchange books to save our lives, to create a conversation that helped us challenge the violence of the culture around us and imagine something else. I found out about David Wojnarowicz in an obituary shortly after he died of AIDS in 1992, and his book Close to the Knives spoke to me more than anything. I felt like it was expressing my sense of rage at the world, and also maybe a little bit of hope in a world of loss. In Wojnarowicz’s work, sex is part of the landscape and desire is always there. It’s part of what it means to be queer. Close to the Knives liberated me to think in that particular way. You mentioned Dorothy Allison—Bastard Out of Carolina was the first book I read that talks about incest, and I read it right around the time when I was realizing that I had been sexually abused as a child. So I needed all the help I could get. In a certain sense, you hold onto books as if they’re friends. And ammunition as well.
AG Oh, totally. The books that could make you angry in a way that felt like armor were the ones I really appreciated when I was younger, less so now. I feel tired now.
AG How did you come to writing? Did it function in the same way that reading did, as a way to figure something out or as a way to escape?
MBS I started writing when I was a little kid. I would write elaborate fairy tales. “Fairy tale” might be the wrong label because fairy tales have a dark side. These stories were set in rooms where the floor was made of lapis lazuli and the ceiling was emeralds and the walls were sapphires. Then, in high school, I wrote basically modernist poetry. You know, a poem modeled on “The Waste Land,” or poems that were philosophical and existential. By the end of high school, Jean-Paul Sartre became the most important author for me—especially his trilogy The Roads to Freedom, where he’s obsessed with being trapped, right? And I was like, Oh, I’m trapped. I’m doomed. I will never escape. But still I craved the freedom Sartre craved, and he gave me a language for it. And so I think that was reflected in my work.
AG I don’t see any parallels there. (laughter)
MBS After leaving high school, I discovered Language poetry, and my work tried to convey everything in fifteen words or fifty words on the page. My obsession was: how do I change language? Right around the time I started sex work, when I was twenty, I would tell these stories about my tricks. One of my friends in San Francisco, Andy, told me I needed to write those stories down. I was skeptical at first because I thought they were too mundane. I thought everyone had these stories, why would I write these stories down? But then I thought, Well, I believe in experimenting, so let me try it. And then I realized, Oh, these stories are actually good. So that’s when voice came back into my writing and became central to it. Language poetry demands a certain removal of voice, but it also taught me how to edit. When you are condensing everything you feel or experience into a few dozen words, you learn what to cut—you have to be relentless. So when I started writing those stories, I meticulously edited everything with form in mind but also to maintain the spontaneity of the voice. Eventually, this integrated with my earlier obsession with changing language by breaking it down into its constituent parts, reshaping it to express what cannot be expressed otherwise, and revealing the gaps between feeling and longing, longing and loss, loss and dreaming. I also became interested again in space on the page. I don’t know that I believe in minimalism, but obviously in this book there are pages that have only one short sentence, and then the rest of the page is blank space, so I guess that is a kind of minimalism. But minimalism in service of feeling.
AG It’s interesting to think about space and absence versus what’s on the page. There are parts of the book that feel so emotionally intense that as a reader I needed that fragmentation and space to let it land or filter. Otherwise I’d have to put the book down to think for a little while. Did it feel that way when you were writing? Like, Okay, I need a moment to have a space to breathe?
MBS Well, I love that you say that. I wanted the space to be there to allow the emotion to come to the fore. But that’s not so much in the writing as it is in the revising. In terms of my writing, I want to keep a sense of spontaneity. I edit fifteen drafts in order to get that.
AG Gay bars are one of the main settings of the book, and, in a way, your style of writing feels 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?
MBS 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 realized 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 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 everything 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 was always 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 that 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 protesting. 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 queerness 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 porousness 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.