My Ecstatic Body: T Fleischmann Interviewed by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

The writer on seeking queer lineage, public sex as collective defiance, and autobiography as accumulation.

T Fleischmann Cover

“Can you be alone with language?” T Fleischmann asks in their second book, Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through (Coffee House Press). This may be a trick question—while holding the book in your hands, you may indeed be alone. But when Fleischmann writes, “the relief from touch felt to me like an ache, or like the auditory hallucination that would linger after I listened to the same song on loop all afternoon,” it’s possible to feel the touch, the ache, and the song all at once.

Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through tracks an ecstatic path through embodiment and sexual pleasure, erotic friendship and art-making, intellectual curiosity and gay/queer/trans history, and the possibilities of living and loving in worlds that refuse conventional dichotomies. To be alone with this book is to experience desire and legacy as two sides to a queer story without bounds. Here I talk with Fleischmann about gender transgression, intergenerational kinship, the artist Felix Gonzales-Torres, the legacy of AIDS, the trauma of childhood, writing about sex in all its complications, and trans lives in the context of the #MeToo moment.

—Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore There were so many places in this book that made me cry—not because I felt sad, or not exactly, but because I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book that felt like it was speaking to my own bodily experience in this way—as someone socialized male, and growing into something else, something between or beyond, but still stuck here. Kinship is a thread that runs through the book, and I wonder if you would say that embodiment itself is a form of kinship.

T Fleischmann I lived for a long time firmly in faggot sexuality and culture, lingering there in part because the only alternative I really saw at the time was to become a trans woman, and I didn’t feel like a woman, either. So I like to eroticize and revel in my kinship with queer men in part because I’m not supposed to—it’s against the rules, if I’m moving away from that, to also claim it, and especially against the rules if I let my body be a point of connection.

Embodiment is a form of kinship, but slant. Like you say, between or beyond, affinity like fisting a dyke or communing through faggot dance parties, the love I feel when I’m with trans women, all of that. Your writing, Mattilda, has been one of the places where I find some of this reflected back to me, but this bodily experience isn’t something I see written about often. I’m interested especially in the ways my experience sometimes clashes with identity like this, not quite fitting anywhere but being many places. The body can seem like a problem, but it can also bring us together.

MBS You write, “I want to leave my gender and my sex life uninscribed,” invoking the conceptual artist Felix Gonzales-Torres, who believed that the uninscribed is a place of change. And yet, in the book, you describe your gender and especially your sex life in such an intimate and expressive way so that it’s not stuck in a theoretical realm; it’s actually about fucking and living and loving. I wonder if you could talk about your choice to make this visible in a book that was originally meant to be a meditation on another artist’s work.

TF There are some ways in which the book aspires to do through [the medium of] writing what Felix Gonzalez-Torres does through installation or photography, although I think the explicit writing about my sex life is one of the louder departures. Time is shaped by excerpting from and rewriting a few writing projects I completed over about six years, one of which was a book-length lyric essay on Felix Gonzalez-Torres, another of which was a kind of sex journal. I want to engage with his work, and a number of other topics, without necessarily suggesting that I have something definitive to say about them, pushing against some forms of knowledge. If you’re reading my book to learn about Gonzalez-Torres, for example, you’ll probably be disappointed. Excerpting from the autobiographical projects also leaves empty spaces, longings, and absences in the text, and so one of the things I try to add in is ecstatic and joyful material: dancing, art-making, orgies, looking at art. That embodied pleasure feels like an appropriate, celebratory context for his work.

Clutch Author Photo

Photo by May Allen.

MBS When Gonzales-Torres was asked, “Who is your public?” he answered that his public consisted of one person, his lover who died of AIDS. I think that the loss of so many to AIDS, including Gonzales-Torres, who died in 1996, haunts your book, and yet you rarely mention AIDS directly. I’m curious about this choice.

TF I’m thinking about the way AIDS is gestured toward in his artwork—not often explicitly, although it is so often present in different ways. I try a similar move with a few topics, maybe one of the more obvious ones being sexual violence. These topics are mentioned a few times, although never rendered through explicit narrative, and much more often I track recurrences, afterlives, or echoes without naming. At times, the naming was in the original text, but I left it behind when I excerpted.

As of my last test, I’m not HIV-positive, although my life has of course been deeply and intimately shaped by AIDS. So, in Time, I included the presence of my friend Sterling, who died from AIDS-related complications while I was writing the book, as well as the artwork of HIV-positive friends. I also mention literary legacy—Hervé Guibert’s The Mausoleum of Lovers and others—as well as my experience with Callen-Lorde, the community health center in New York City with roots as one of the earliest community-run HIV clinics, where I went for many years to receive access to hormones. This choice I made, to gesture instead of naming, has its limits and its problems, although I hope it also lets me offer something I can’t get at otherwise, autobiography as a kind of accumulation.                                                                                               

MBS In many ways, your book is about generation and regeneration. This longing for a queer or gay or trans lineage. Its absence, and its presence. I’m thinking of the Keith Haring mural you mention, an ode to sucking and fucking at the LGBT Center in New York City, which used to be behind the urinals in the so-called “men’s room,” but now sits in a room on its own, like an artifact. And yet you find plenty of places for sex in public. What does this mean to you?

TF I remember when I first realized how easy it was to have sex with men in public. Men are such sluts! I was kind of delirious with the realization that, at least in large cities, I could have sex with men more or less anytime I wanted, and all different kinds of men, too. There’s something ecstatic about it, and there is also the undercurrent of violence or the potential of violence—from the men, from the police, from strangers. I point in one section toward Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, which does a much better job explaining the revolutionary potential in these kinds of encounters than I could, but I’m interested in anonymous, public sex in part because it feels like an act of collective defiance, a tradition of people claiming space back from the state and corporations, for pleasure.

MBS Speaking of defiance, I love the anecdote you tell about a kid who asks the question that any trans person receives a million times in our lives: “Are you a boy or a girl?” And your answer is a simple “No.” And then the kid says, “So you don’t have to be a boy or girl?” Would you say that this is a moment of possibility for both of you?

TF After I had that exchange I spent all day lit up by this kid. It was this very positive moment of being together. The recurrence of the street encounter can be an exhausting reality, but there are these glimmers of joy sometimes, too. The kid’s questions were open and honest—they gave us a shared understanding, which seems to me revolutionary. Of course, most of the people who have something to say about gender to me on the streets are fucked-up assholes, so I appreciate the opportunity this kid gave me to focus on another kind of connection. Any moment of connection is a moment of possibility, really. It allows a lot of change.

MBS I think the trauma of childhood is always present in the book, and yet it’s always contested as well. There’s a part at the end where you talk about all the different sex acts you tried, to see if they might stick, and I love how you list things like “face-fucking someone in a kiddie pool filled with piss, electrocuting and punching and getting beat, none of which is really my thing” in such a mundane way. But then the part that really hit me was when you say that in this sense you prepared yourself not to be shocked by actual violence directed toward you in your sex life. How would you connect this approach to the current conversation about sexual violence in our #MeToo moment?

TF I’m not convinced the #MeToo moment extends to trans people, just like it doesn’t apply to many other marginalized people. There are some glaring examples, like that Jeff asshole, still employable and carrying on after he was called out by trans women on the set of Transparent. And then, the countless times I’ve been groped by a stranger while out dancing, insistent and loaded comments from a colleague—naming things like this rarely seems to get trans people anywhere; it just opens us up to judgment, disbelief, exclusion. After the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, I was thrown back to a memory from junior high by descriptions from the testimony, remembering these guys who bullied me. It suddenly dawned on me that so much of the anti-queer bullying I had experienced had in fact been sexual violence, that if it had happened to some cis girl, everyone would have seen it that way. These things are constant. So the conversation the book is trying to have occurs in this light, aware that “saying” isn’t always an option, but still needing or wanting to say something, to track something. And in all that, I can get a different kind of political utility with my ecstatic body than I can by writing my body at the moment of violence.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is most recently the author of a novel, Sketchtasy, named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2018.

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