Departing from the Template: McKenzie Wark Interviewed by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

The writer on the fiction of autobiography, drugs as a gateway to gender euphoria, and trans writing that remakes the world.

Reverse Cowgirl Purple

“There are moments when I don’t exist. I both want and fear those moments,” McKenzie Wark writes in Reverse Cowgirl (Semiotext(e)), a book that maps the drive toward self-erasure as a paradoxical path toward self-actualization. In this “autoethnography,” Wark traces her gender, sexual, and social identities from the “unisex 1970s” in the Australian steel and coal port of Newcastle, to the schisms between punk and homophobes, disco and Marxists, and a master’s thesis written while working in a Sydney porn shop.

In Reverse Cowgirl, Wark interweaves the voices of other authors, critical thinkers, and friends throughout the text, offering, as she writes, “Not only literary criticism but also critical literalism.” The book is meticulously crafted in short chapters, precise summations, and even sex advice doubling as philosophy, such as “In my utopia, before anyone attempts to fuck another, they will first have learned how to be fucked.” Wark refuses to call this book a coming-of-age tale, even if it ends up marking her coming-into-identity as a trans woman. If the text may initially feel dystopic in spite of its moments of ecstasy that transcend and descend, it ends in a space of utopic self-invention. 

—Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore In Reverse Cowgirl, you say that the problem with being human is that “We exist for each other only when we don’t exist; and we don’t exist for each other only in those moments of raw existing.” The themes of existence and nonexistence are central to this book, and I’m wondering if you could talk about their intertwining.

McKenzie Wark Louis Aragon has a “love poem” that involves two empty suits of armor talking to each other. Reverse Cowgirl follows in that vein by setting up this impossibility of revealing our essence to each other. It’s not a romantic book. I think we’re always mis-recognizing things in relation to ourselves and also in relation to each other. In the writer’s relation to herself—you might glimpse the raw meat of being for a moment, but you can’t write in that state. In the writer’s relation to the reader—to the extent that the book can really communicate a feeling or a concept that moves the reader, I’m not there for it. Ironically, I find autobiography to be more fictional than fiction, as it tries to hand-wave those sorts of problems away. I wanted a kind of writing that stayed in the situation of this impossibility but was still fun to read. Which is why a fair bit of it is porn.

MBS In your descriptions of sex, you also offer an informal sexual history of the 1970s, ‘80s, and ’90s in Newcastle and Sydney, Australia, as well as the more recent past in New York City. The text is pared-down to its essentials, and when you introduce the AIDS crisis, you do it with a chapter title that says “What Does Not Make Us Stronger Kills Us,” a stunning inversion of “what does not kill us makes us stronger.” I wonder if you could talk about how you invert language as both a philosophical tool and a means for emotional opening.

MWI always loved those Oscar Wilde epigrams that reverse commonplaces, such as: “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” In my other books I was interested in ways of opening up play within the language we’re given, within received ideas, mostly to make concepts. In Reverse Cowgirl I sometimes use the same methods, but it’s more about how our feelings have a historical dimension. That has to do with how I lived through the start of the AIDS pandemic during a failed attempt to be a gay man. Now, however, the unresolved feeling about it for me has to do with both the missing gay men but also missing trans women in my life, of my generation. I feel that keenly. 

MBSAt times in the book, especially in sexual relationships, you write about the desire to give power over to someone else as a means of self-erasure. And yet, at the same time, you convey such strong survival mechanisms. How do you explain the presence of both of these impulses? 

MW I’ll have to ask my therapist! Reverse Cowgirl is not autobiography or memoir in that I don’t claim to arrive at any truth of the self. I’m interested in our opacity with ourselves. There’s an element of comedy in that. In this case, in a character who wants to control their own loss of control. I leave it to the reader to analyze. You could say it’s about losing my mother so young, or you could say it’s a product of a rather obtuse kind of gender dysphoria. Or that I’m just an asshole. What I do know, as a writer, is memory and sensation. What I don’t know is how to interpret what those mean. I don’t want to take away the reader’s pleasure in the text of knowing more about me than I do. 

Mc Kenzie Wark Credit Heather Sten

Photo of McKenzie Wark by Heather Sten.

MBS You call this book an autoethnography. You say that it is “more meme than memoir.” You describe it as autofiction. And, you say that it is “Not a personal essay so much as an impersonal assay.” What is your goal in complicating the form, and how does this relate to your own self-invention?

MW Perhaps it goes back to reading Montaigne at an impressionable age. He gets recruited into a conservative kind of skepticism sometimes, but I think he is more interesting as a writer who plays with versions of becoming a self, but all worn lightly. The unknowable core of the self is no obstacle to producing selves that do indeed know, in an active and open sense, and who use writing as a way of making themselves. There’s an autofiction inheritance of that in, say, the late texts of Marguerite Duras and an auto-theory inheritance in, say, Guy Debord’s In Girum and Panegyric. Ways of writing that construct ways of life, that have either an affective or conceptual plane that opens out of memory and sensation. I don’t think I’m complicating the form, though. The theory generation, to which I belong, made that a habit. I was aiming more for a writing that is light and tight.

MBSLate in the book, Chris Kraus, your editor at Semiotext(e), makes an appearance when you include an email from her where she wants to see more of “how uncanny and unpredictable it is, how things turn out.” I love the way this intervention shifts the terms of the narrative, and makes it more unpredictable. Throughout the book, you incorporate other people’s words, but it’s here that the book really starts to feel like a conversation. What does this dialogue mean to you?

MWI’m interested in writing that engages with the way people read now. If you are a literary person, perhaps you and your friends are on Twitter or Instagram and share photos of favorite passages from the books you happen to be reading. I certainly do. So, I wanted the text to read like a feed. I think we read texts in juxtaposition now. I make those juxtapositions intentional. I interrupt my text with my favorite writers who sometimes seem to comment or provide a contrast or who describe what I am failing to describe and do it better. 

If, like me, you read and even write on your phone, sometimes—beep!—you are interrupted by an alert that someone has a message for you, so Chris’s email ends up in the text. Chris’s writing was important to me when I was working on this book. It’s working title was I Love Girl Dick for a while, but I didn’t get around to putting any T4T sex in it—maybe that’s in the next one—so it ended up entitled Reverse Cowgirl instead. Chris was important to me as a writer for whom affect and concept are not antithetical. I wanted to acknowledge what I learned from her.

MBSIn this book, one of the ways you bridge the gap between affect and concept is to take drugs, from your coming-of-age as a teenager to your recent coming-into-self. You use drugs now, in your late fifties, to “figure out how to speak another language of the body.” What does this language feel like?

MWI was mostly interested in drugs as a kind of practice, as ways of experiencing the body in situations and what one can learn from that. One thing I learned about was gender. My gender dysphoria was always very obtuse and more about not wanting the emotional life of a man rather than not wanting the body of one. But through drugs and sex on drugs I came to a kind of gender euphoria that pointed the way, eventually, to how I could exist in the world. 

Also: I came out in a corner of the trans community that likes to drop a little Molly and go to queer techno raves in secret locations in Brooklyn and Queens. My fifty-something year old ass can actually do that if I go to bed at 7 PM, get up at 2 AM! I had forgotten how much dancing, particularly to techno, was also a way I felt a euphoric joy in my own body—particularly with techno, as it’s a music made for aliens that doesn’t presume a cis body. It’s a very practiced and minimalist corner of rave culture: the beats, the lights, the clothing, the drugs—it’s a Technics pared down to produce an ecstatic effect and no more. It’s better than how I remember it in the nineties.

MBSReverse Cowgirl is an unconventional narrative of transition for you as a trans woman because you allow your past selves to remain. At the end of the book, your quest toward nonexistence fades into the background, and you “transition to existing, all the time, as something that would no longer be pretending to be a man.” What does this transition mean to you?

MWCertainly, you could see the “me” of the book as finally figuring out that she was always seeking relief from existing as a man and now doesn’t have to do that. At the end of the first part of the book, you could say she figures some things out, although whether she is right about herself or not is open to question. But then there’s the second, much shorter part of the book where she is a newly hatched trans woman with all the naïve enthusiasm and wonder that, if you are lucky, early transition can bring.

Rather than end with a knowledge of the self, as the autobiography as genre tends to demand, it ends with a “me” who knows even less about herself, but at least isn’t bored, and is making fresh mistakes. That’s not everyone’s transition story. It is mine, though, and maybe it chimes with other readers. I didn’t find myself in most trans writing, so I had to write my own. I think that’s where trans writing is now: departing from the template and mapping all the different ways we come to exist in different forms. I wanted to contribute to this exciting literature being made by, among others, Casey Plett, Torrey Peters, Juliana Huxtable, Kai Cheng Thom, Jordy Rosenberg, Jackie Ess, Hazel Jane Plante, Clutch Fleischmann—and, of course—you.

Purchase your copy of Reverse Cowgirl here.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is most recently the author of Sketchtasy, one of NPR’s Best Books of 2018. Her next book, The Freezer Door, will be out from Semiotext(e) in November 2020.

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