Sarah Schulman does not hesitate to commit a “cultural violation.” She constantly transgresses the boundaries of what is expected of her: as a writer, as an activist, as a white lesbian living in America. Her fifth and latest novel, Empathy (Dutton), sputters social realist doses of a crisis-ridden, morally bankrupt New York. Stumbling over the gritty urban terrain, her sensitive but righteous characters search for their own place while struggling internally around gender and sexuality. As an activist with ACT UP and the emerging Lesbian Avengers, Schulman boldly embraces in-your-face direct action tactics. For their first action, the new group responded to a Queens school board ban on mentioning homosexuality until the eighth grade by handing out balloons to elementary school students emblazoned with the suggestion: “Ask About Lesbians.”
Milyoung Cho Does your writing and your political work have anything to do with each other, or are they two separate parts of your life?
Sarah Schulman The fiction is about politics, but not because I decided it would be but because that’s my world view. I don’t have any illusions that my fiction writing is making any social changes. There’s a lot of rhetoric going around about telling your story as “an act of resistance.” I really don’t think that that’s true. Writing is what I love to do the most. It’s an extremely pleasurable experience, plus I get a lot of approval for it. It’s hardly an act of resistance; it’s become a completely contained action. I write a book and a corporate publisher publishes it and the media reviews it. It’s been commodified and contained. I enjoy it, and if people reading it enjoy it, that’s good. But I have no illusion that that’s a substitute for organizing. If you use personal success as a substitute for political achievement, you’re not moving foreword as a community and you’re not building political power which is what our community needs.
MC In the ’60s and ’70s, communities of anti-establishment people were called the counterculture as if they were perpetually reacting. We always have to react to dominant, oppressive forces and systems. Do you feel that this sets up your writing?
SS In the ’80s there was an experiment in lesbian fiction about trying to create a world in which the objective, neutral, and authoritative voice was a lesbian voice. That was about trying to see the world from our points of view. In each person’s point of view, they are central. How do we articulate that in a context in which we are invisible and meaningless? People did try and I tried too. But after all these years of being punished, watching our friends drop dead and seeing what’s happened in our country … it’s been so dramatic and so dehumanizing that a lot of lesbian work has become about being marginal. I have a review that came out in Publisher’s Weekly, and the first words are, “Lesbian writer.” I don’t have a problem with that, but they could say Jewish writer, or comic writer, or political writer, or whatever. Your marginality becomes your primary identity. I’m really trapped in this struggle with marginality and my resentments about it. It’s the thing that I look at the most, and many of my insights are about that state. If you are a really enlightened person, sometimes you can get through that. But right now, my subject matter is the separation, and the exclusion, even though I try to be funny about it.
MC I was thinking about the character Anna and how her homophobic ex-lover describes her as narrow because she is gay …
SS I talk about this all of the time with gay writers, lesbian writers: we are not invited into the intellectual discourse of this nation. We are never asked about anything unless it’s a gay topic. But I have a very wide range of things to say from my lesbian perspective, about what’s going on in America’s culture. We have been incredibly abused by the television—with the Republican convention and all that crap. One reason being that the vast majority of gay people who are in the media are invisible and closeted. And once you are not closeted you become dehumanized and devalued. Your word becomes “special interest” and “extremist.” You can no longer be of interest to the dominant culture. The most powerful and gifted people in our community are closeted. We have a brain drain of credibility. The most famous woman intellectual in the world, the most prominent Black woman political leader in this country, the greatest Latina playwright in America, a prominent choreographer … all of these people are recognized as smart and brilliant women and yet, are complicit with the lie that to be a brilliant and creative woman you must give up sex and love. There’s a glass wall between “us” and “them.” They fear that if they come out they will lose their credibility, no matter how much they have achieved.
MC Does this lay an extra burden on the creative people who are out to explore those things that people in the closet wouldn’t even touch?
SS Yes, but it doesn’t matter how much we achieve because legitimacy isn’t there for us. Look at Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. You could say that is a piece of lesbian literature because the character is transformed through a sexual relationship with another woman, but the popular discourse couldn’t contain that. So, even when the quality of a piece is broadly recognized, the lesbianism often conveniently disappears from the discourse.
MC Do you identify as a lesbian writer?
MC I was looking at the word “empathy” in the dictionary and they had a psychological definition, “It is the power to enter into the spirit of others.” What does empathy mean for you?
SS The original title was, Empathy, The Cheapest of Emotions. It was about being liberal. But so much has happened in this country in the past three years that even asking for empathy is asking for more than what is possible. (laughter) So I changed the title. Mostly I was thinking about AIDS and the lack of respect and compassion, and the neglect that America has exhibited. Even something as banal as empathy doesn’t exist in the way America views gay people.
MC The situation is so bad now that we don’t have the luxury to deride liberalism.
SS I have been really active on the Oregon anti-gay initiative this past week. Do you know about that black lesbian and gay white male who were burned to death in their home by skinheads? Their names are Hattie Mae Cohens and Brian Mock. There is not one word about these killings in the national media. This should be like the Bumpers case or the Emmett Till case. But the message is gay people’s lives mean nothing. I keep wondering who is gonna do something about this, and then you start calling around and finding that no one is really in charge. The previous model for social change has been revolution, everyone has sat around for a really long time and said, “When the revolution comes dadadadada … ” It ends up being a very disempowering model because revolution isn’t coming. The message that it really sends is that unless total social transformation comes, you can’t act. But you can do one act of resistance every day. Everyday step out of your role, do something you wouldn’t normally do to try and have an effect.
MC What do you mean, step out of your role?
SS You have to commit a cultural violation. In our community, cultural production has become a substitute for political work. People can go to a reading and see this multicultural production, but when they leave that room, nothing has happened. They’ve had a “feel good” experience but it stopped there. Obviously, the status quo is killing us. So obviously, we aren’t doing the right thing. We come away feeling good and two people still get killed in Oregon. And we’re still not doing anything about it.
MC In Empathy, Anna goes to Indonesia as a tourist. How does that relate to who she is socially?
SS There has been a canonization of victimization in some corners, where a person has legitimacy if they are a victim, and that kind of role is very denying of what it is to be an American. I learned something about this in ACT UP. A lot of the men there are very clear on how they are being fucked over by the government, by the heterosexual establishment, by the pharmaceutical corporations, but they have no consciousness about other people who have AIDS and who don’t have what they have, and their responsibility to them. My characters, Anna and Doc, in the framework of New York City, are not very powerful, but they can still be international tourists in a Third World country. They can come with a “noble savage” metaphor and have it broken and be shocked that it’s broken, and then see it as a metaphor for themselves as broken. The way white people in our community have traditionally glorified and then canonized the culture they are entering—“those people are so spiritual; their country is so beautiful.”
MC I’ve been in that situation myself. Even though I am Asian, I could very well be someone like Anna. When I was in Thailand, I was always very self-conscious about my presence. At the same time, I also felt a lot of outrage about what other tourists were doing. There were all these white American and European men hounding these Thai boys all around the country. Seeing these levels of tourist exploitation, I always had to question how I fit into the whole scene.
SS Imperialism can not be avoided, and it’s very shocking to discover that, because a lot of people are under the illusion that it can.
MC It seems that we are so caught up in the crisis at hand that there is no room for us to talk about vision and where we see ourselves heading. Is this how you see it?
SS Yes. And we haven’t created our own space, we have no lesbian media. I’ve been interviewed hundreds of times, every person who has interviewed me, before you, has been white. The gay media is so insanely segregated that it is useless. You have these magazines with all white editorial staff who are content having a circulation of five to eight thousand white males and don’t care about serving the rest of the community or raising their circulation. We have cultural events and readings but no place to really talk about anything. A sort of rejection of dissent gets put into play passively, because of the lack of public debate. We don’t have access to mainstream media either. But I don’t think creating more underground press is the issue here. For some reason the community has not been able to confront the white press and force change.
MC Do you feel we would be better off struggling from the margins in a predominantly white straight media, rather than creating our own?
SS We are having this conversation because of BOMB Magazine, not because of Out or QW or the Advocate. I think groups like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation should be going after the gay media and saying to them that an all white editorial staff is not acceptable. They give a distorted view of gay life.
MC It’s about holding our own community accountable. What do you do about it?
SS One simple thing that white people can do in this community is, if you’re an artist, refuse to be in a program that’s racially segregated. Just say you won’t. Those programs will not continue if enough people say that. It’s a little thing that can actually have a huge impact. If I’m going to have work in an anthology, I try to find out if it’s going to have a really diverse group of writers contributing and whether people are being tokenized. I can’t have an illusion that my white editor, who is my age and is a lesbian, just happens to think that I’m the best writer. When actually there’s a whole issue of sociological identification and familiarity going on. There is no out Asian lesbian editor who is bringing in writers in the same way. Look at Audre Lorde. Here’s this person that a lot of people will tell you is the most important writer in their life. A book like Zami changed people’s lives. She was never published by a mainstream press; she was never reviewed in the New York Times for fiction writing. What’s the reason? Why do I have a corporate publisher and she didn’t? It’s not like I’m a better writer than Audre Lorde. That’s obviously not the issue.
MC What are you saying about your own writing when you’re saying this?
SS I’m trying to keep aware of what it really means and doesn’t mean. And in what context and compared to whom. When I’m in a room of all men, it has a different meaning, and when I’m in the lesbian community, who I am is different again. What do you think about not having a static identity?
MC That’s just a part of my life. People will perceive me based on all kinds of cultural information in one world, but when I’m at home with my family … well, not my family, that’s a whole other issue. (laughter) But within the Asian community, it’s something very different. It’s not something I even think about too much.
SS There’s probably no one on this earth whose parent, you know, when they were born, thought, “Oh, I hope she’ll grow up and become a lesbian writer.” (laughter) The profound rejection that gay people have had from their families is often the most important event in our lives—not just individually but as a community. Who’s fighting for civil rights of gay people? Only gay people. Who’s fighting for our cultural production? Only we are. We’ve had to step into the role of family and the role of mutual aid society and the role of everything. We provide counseling services; we provide street patrols. We’ve had to provide everything because the America that is our families has abandoned us. It’s a very profound rejection and it forms us as a community.
MC Your character, Anna, is definitely in that situation. She doesn’t have a sense of who she is—being told she wants to be a man but that she hates them at the same time. She does come to some wholeness at the end. Do you feel like there is some possibility for us? (laughter)
SS We are each other’s knights in shining armor. Let’s face it, nobody else is going to come along and rescue us.