“(W)Rap on: Gender/Sexuality” is the second episode of the (W)Rap On series at AnthroPod, which brings anthropologists into conversation with artists, activists, and scholars from other disciplines and perspectives. The series is loosely inspired by James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s 1970 conversation Rap on Race, and was conceived by Hilary Morgan Leathem in collaboration with AnthroPod.
Our format attempts to identify and confront some of the problems that Mead and Baldwin’s conversation embodied, such as white fragility, complicity with power structures, and the struggle to create space for different groups to speak openly. We provide a platform for thoughtful and incisive discussions that highlight solidarities and shared commitments. We also highlight frictions and tensions between anthropological and other approaches.
In this episode, anthropologist Mary Weismantel discusses writing about bodies, relating to readers, memory, and truth with fiction writer Samuel Delany. V Chaudhry moderates the conversation.
Cohen, Cathy J. 1997. “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ 3, no. 4: 437–65.
Delany, Samuel R. 1989. The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village. New York: Plume Press.
_____. 1999. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York University Press.
_____. 2005. About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.
Newton, Esther. 1979. Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Snorton, C. Riley. 2014. Nobody is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
_____. 2017. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Valentine, David. 2007. Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
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Beth Derderian [00:00]: Hello and welcome to AnthroPod. My name is Beth Derderian and I'm here with my colleague Hilary Leathem to introduce today's episode entitled “(W)Rap on Gender and Sexuality.” This episode is part of a series conceived by Hilary and myself, inspired by the anthropologist Margaret Mead and writer James Baldwin's 1970 conversation called "Rap on Race." In the (W)Rap on series, we pair anthropologists with public figures for an open conversation around a broad topic such as race, immigration, or sexuality.
Hilary Leathem [00:31]: We thought both the concept and format of putting an anthropologist and a public figure into conversation around pressing social and political themes would be even more generative today now that anthropology has experienced its critical moment of reflection. Pairing off anthropologists and figures the public recognizes as authorities on the subject, the series further extends anthropology's reach beyond the discipline and most importantly beyond the academy. We hope the series will speak to the ways anthropology breaks down boundaries and contributes to social change.
BD [01:00]: For today's episode we invited V Chaudhry to moderate the conversation between Samuel Delany, who goes by “Chip” amongst friends and colleagues, and Mary Weismantel. Chip is a fiction author and Mary is a professor of anthropology. V, take it away.
V Chaudhry [01:14]: Thanks so much Chip and Mary for being a part of this conversation. My understanding is that this series has sort of touched on a lot of different big-name topics that cultural anthropologists are increasingly interested in. So this is the big thing on gender and sexuality. So the first question I have for both of you is about those very categories, right. So what are we talking about when we talk about gender and sexuality: Chip coming from a writing and literary background and Mary speaking as an anthropologist and gender studies scholar and someone in conversation with a lot of people thinking about gender. What are the things that come to mind when you say that you work on gender or writing about gender and sexuality? What are you writing about or thinking about?
Samuel Delany [01:59]: I will throw out something, that is always the way it struck me as the gender basically to the aspects of a sexual role that have to be performed and have been, or as having been presented to the world in some particular way. Either because you're comfortable presenting it in that particular way or you think you should or you know or for what or for whatever reason. That's what I would say. I mean that's, that's what gender is. And as a, as a performance there is always a place for slippage and there can be uncomfortable the gender you are assigned. So you could do something to change.
Mary Weismantel [02:42]: That’s a good starting point to focus on performance. I think that, as an anthropologist—especially, you know, I'm really interested in not just studying the present which is what cultural anthropology is, but also really thinking about the very long term and looking back into premodern and precapitalist societies and that's where it's really exciting to be in dialogue with somebody who also imagines futures because I feel like one of the things that is least apparent to people outside of anthropology or outside of the creative arts is just the mutability of gender because it is a performance that hasn't always been the same. And it's changing so fast right now. So I think performance is a good way to kind of get a handle on that.
V Chaudhry [03:27]: Absolutely. And I think talking about the history and talking about a deeper sort of structural relationship that gender has two other categories of experience and analysis, right. So race, class, sexuality. How do you think about gender and sexuality as these categories that we use and that we know but that sort of only exist in relationship to those other things whether that's in a particular context historically or in the present or when you're building a world, Chip, like in your writing?
SD [03:55]: Anthropologists can sometimes get a bad rap because they are perceived to not to be interested in history as we know it, which is to say the immediate history—most of the history that I think of in terms of when I'm writing about things or things that I've actually seen. I have seen changes in attitudes toward homosexuality or, you know, change radically since I was a kid. I didn't get a chance to come out to either one of my parents for a whole variety of reasons and then they died. You know and and I was, I was very thankful for being gay. That's because it gave me a lot of good things in my life, although models for being gay were very different when I was young. Most gay men that I knew well were married so I got married too, you know, and I married a woman who knew that I was gay and what have you. And I knew several others but the notion, the notion that you could be a gay man and be connected with, only with another gay man: that didn't come along until, for me, until after Stonewall, you know. So and again after Stonewall, then I did that so that I've been together with the partner that I have worked for twenty-seven years. But for the first thirteen or so years of my adulthood I was a married gay man. And I have a daughter. And for those reasons and those things do change. And so I'm interested in how gay society or the gay culture has changed over the time that I've been around and I haven't paid too much attention to the way heterosexuality has changed. So it's something I don't know a lot about and which leaves me in a, you know you know, in a position where I am, you know, I'm kind of one side. In what I know. I have one fuck buddy that goes back to the time I was twenty-seven, outside of my regular relationship. And watching that in his relationship, he's married. I'm not married with my partner, we live together but we haven't gotten married. This is, this is a little different from the, from as far as I can tell, from the way a lot of heterosexual societies still today function.
MW [00:06:22]: There's so many ways to think about the intersection of gender and sexuality with other kinds of difference, like race and class. But I do think one of them is that, as you mentioned, it's sort of, it's a blessing and a curse to be part of an oppressed group who's not in the norm, because of that Du Bois idea of the double vision. You know, that if you are a gay person, you do actually know a lot about straight life, you know. But straight people live in a completely different world; it's amazing to me how kind of innocent they can be and how unaware of things, you know. And I think that just doubles and triples and quadruples when you talk about people of color who are queer, you know. Then there's like multiple lenses going on at the same time, you know. And that kind of leads me to the thing I was thinking about with the last question, which is about both pleasure and oppressiveness. You know, Chip said gender is performative and there's a part of that that's so pleasurable. I mean, that's why drag queens love putting on makeup and wearing high heels and stuff they can't do when they're performing masculinity. But then also that super oppressive thing where, you know, gender is a prison and people are trying to keep you in it. Going into doing fieldwork with Indigenous people who are very oppressed in South America, that it would just be this double prison. You know, like, it's bad to be nonnormative, it's bad to be a woman, it's even worse if you're a woman of color. But there's also this weird way in which there was this kind of freedom and invisibility, you know, because I wrote about these market women. You know non-Indigenous people say: oh, you know, gender roles among the Indigenous people are very rigid, like they really know what femininity it must be. And I'm like, really? Because these women are like walking around, talking about themselves as being the fathers of their children, wearing men's articles with men's clothing and they're like: "Well, that's just because they're chollas." I'm like, what does that even mean? You know so, so I think that those interactions of those different categories create both double oppressions but also sometimes these windows that are super exciting and interesting.
VC [08:31]: Both of you touch on some really interesting, not just kind of intersections, broadly speaking, of gender/sexuality and where you are, who you are, but sort of how we make sense of these categories is rooted very much in where we are existing in the world and who are existing in relationship to, right. So a lot of thinkers now are thinking about how in the States, especially in the States but certainly transnationally, the transatlantic slave trade has led black folks to envision gender in very particular ways and blackness informing, and antiblackness in particular informing, how we might understand gender or transgender. C. Riley Snorton has written about this. Folks are thinking really explicitly about race and class as coconstitutive with gender all the time and with sexuality all the time. So there's so much to both of your points depending on the context you're in, whether it's I'm hanging out with this guy and he's picking me up and he is in a relationship that means this to him, but he also has this other kinds of sexual relationships, or I'm in this context and you know a particular geographic historical environment like in the Andes with your work, Mary, thinking about how oppression exists for people in very, very particular ways but that also looking at, at the very particular, can reveal something really interesting about the broad scale. So you know, we don't know much about gay culture or we know a lot about gay culture as queer folks but we also know a lot about heterosexuality because we build gay culture in relationship to that, right. Would you say that that's true, Chip, in your writing and when you're thinking about futurity and world-making culture, do you think that you know, marginalized folks are building in reaction to the dominant society and in reaction to what kinds of forms of power are around?
SD [10:16]: Yes I don't think you're going to have any choice. I mean, because the power is there. We are always responding one way or the other. We are approving of it, we are either going with it or we're going up against it or we're trying to get somewhere. So yeah.
MW [10:32]: I wonder. For me, as someone in the academy and thinking about being a purely creative writer, which sounds so appealing but also terrifying. It seems like part of a lot of the appeal is the ability to just . . . imagine ways out of the power structures that we're in. You know, for us, we never really get to fully do that. When we do, we check ourselves, you know, and say: this is not an accurate representation of the world. But it seems like that ability to envision something that could happen is so important, at the same time recognize that you know in your work and in really all the work of science fiction that I like to read, it still is working through those power relations that exist. I'm just curious how it feels to be able to imagine things that aren't here.
SD [11:26]: Well, there are the things that you imagine and there are the things that you live. You know what I'm, what I'm most interested in right now and the things I'm talking about now are the things that I've lived. And I've seen, they influence what i imagine. Certainly and I will write something that goes along with what I imagine one day, I will try to imagine something that was exactly against what I imagined yesterday, you know, in another story.
VC [11:54]: I think there's certainly room for imagining something otherwise but also to describe exactly what is, right, exactly what it is that we see and what we experience and what it is that we notice about our own communities and communities that we perceive to be different of us in whatever way, in whatever way that might be. Both of you have sort of gestured toward change over time and I'm wondering if you can speak to where you think we are now. And I think, Chip, you mentioned being in your seventies and having witnessed the shifting perceptions in the American public sphere, at least around LGBTQ or queer or gay-identified people and totally different understandings about those categories and those experiences that have happened over time. But along with that we know: what is this, what's the moment that we're in now when we think about gender and sexuality? I think more and more people have something to say when we bring these topics up in just any context than ever before. So I'm wondering if you can both speak to the current moment and how you make sense of it in your work or just in your own lives.
SD [13:01]: One of things I'm very much aware of is how much of what is going on now does seem to be organized. There are groups of gay men who get together for sex parties and things like that, older groups of men who get together for sex parties. That was a big surprise for me to find out. Only a few years ago and apparently had been around for a while. So I'm always finding out that the world I actually live in is a lot stranger and a lot more complex than I personally ever thought it was. And that's, you know, and that's that's interesting. I remember learning about a lot of the organizational things that were going on in the LGBT, in the rainbow alphabet. And I remember, you know, there were, there would be things that made me, that where are you going I took as kind of givens. The S&M branch of the gay male movement seemed to have a lot of the, to be the political movement in a way that I didn't see as less flamboyant [unintelligible]. I don't think that's necessarily the case. I think that that was either a prejudice on my part or just that. But it was certainly something that seemed to be the case for a number of years. And then, you know, got out otherwise and that and things were going off that I had not realized, were going on different ways, some the way that I perceived them with all, dare I say, of my own prejudices, my own shorthand ways of thinking about it. And, in other words, my world was built up as much from prejudices and assumptions as anybody else. You don't escape those. You just have a different set. You know, from the ones that other people do.
MW [14:58]: It's—you know, obviously it maybe always feels like this but it does feel like one of those “best of times, worst of times” moments. Like, on the one hand queerness and gender diversity is just exploding so fast and it's so fascinating. You know, my partner is a therapist, is seeing these young people who just identify completely outside of all the categories that we already had. And so that's just amazing and you know they're very young so they represent a future, yet on the other hand of course you know we have this increasingly depressing and frightening political things happening at the state level. So it's, it's just, it's very confusing. It's very confusing in terms of thinking over the really long term. I'm sort of looping back to some previous thoughts, but something that's been a transition for me maybe in the last year or two is that I used to really be too angry and frustrated that people who care a lot about race and about oppression weren't more interested in periods of time before European colonialism. You know, like, I would notice that if I tried to talk about the Americas and be like, you know, we have thousands, thousands of years of history where there's just no white people, you don't have to worry about them because they're not there, you know, and people you know, and then you go: "Oh, here's a white person doing something bad to an Indian. That's fascinating, tell me more about that," you know and I was like, why is there this, this sort of obsession with that moment which is so short, wouldn't it be more liberating to really immerse more fully in the past and use that to craft a future? And I think that that is a movement. In some ways, in some areas. But the realization I've come to is that we have to work through all of the traumas and the prisons that we've been in in order to get to that future or that path.
VC [16:56]: I really appreciate whta both of you are touching on, which I think is a couple of things. I think a lot about institutions and institutionality in my work. So I think what both of you are touching on is sort of what it looks like to codify a lot of the terms and understandings around particular ideologies that come out, so you know, organizing various community gatherings, organizing around just difference, so being able to say, like, I don't know how I would describe my gender but I know it's not these things that have been placed in front of me as options, and there's space for, and there's more and more space in some ways for what that other option looks like, right. But at the same time, we're all sort of always already entangled in these forms of power and sort of structural inequalities that entangle us all the time. So I appreciate what you said, Chip, about taking things, we are taking things for granted and saying, you know, no matter what position you're in, you're sort of tangled in ideology regardless, and you were saying Mary, this way in which we have a past that we don't always excavate fully but we do know how power affects us today. So a question that I'm thinking of that comes out of that, and I really want to move on to talking about how you both think about writing as somebody who's read both of your, both of your writing and I think that's a really interesting area that, that anthropology and particular kinds of cultural anthropology can really speak to in conversation with science fiction and with fiction in general. Can you describe a moment either, both of you, where you were trying to describe a situation or a character and you sort of were caught within lots of different ideology structures, whether they were your own or the people that you were describing. Right? And what, what did that look like for you and how did you work through that?
MW [18:47]: Well, I'm writing right now. So I think something that I struggled with a lot is wanting to write about—I've written and I'm writing about these ancient, ancient people who lived a long time ago and I'm sort of writing against the norm, which has been to write about them in a very exoticizing and I think kind of racist way that really plays up, like, how weird they were. And it's like, I want to really celebrate and explore and acknowledge the ways in which they do represent, what we know about them, represents a kind of radical difference without falling into that trap. You know, that kind of exoticizing trap. So, and that's a struggle for me. You know, it's at the level of every adjective. That's why I'm such a slow writer, you know. So it's a constant, it's a constant issue.
SD [19:41]: I mean, one of the things that I remember. Suddenly I think it's, I think it's an idea that actually formed reading some D. H. Lawrence essay, who is a writer who was very problematic for a lot of people and certainly for me. But essentially he said: make sure you give your best arguments and your best, you know, your best lines to the people who represent the people who disagree with you. You know, somehow you will take care of them. But you'll take care of them almost without trying because they knew they agree with you. So whereas what you have to always be aware of is the people who don't agree with you in your characters, the people who stand for people and ways of looking at the world that you don't agree with. Those are the ones that you have to give the best part to. That's the way you keep your fiction getting richer and richer and richer.
MW [20:45]: That's so beautiful. I love that. It's funny because, like you said, D. H. Lawrence is a super problematic author and a fascinating one for me because of it, because, because he wrote about sexuality, but. So, so, like you know, he has that famous description where the rough working-class man is teaching this uptight upper-class woman about her own body and he's naming all the parts but he doesn't give her a clit, you know. And so that's the starting point for me and talking about the art that I'm looking at, where all the women have these big visible clits, you know. But I love that statement. And I think the opposite side is also really true, at least for an anthropologist, and I struggle with making this clear to students is, like: you can't make the people that you want to identify the most into your avatar, as you know. So there's a tendency to make them into these better-than-real people, like, because they're trans people of color or because they're working-class people, they're just so perfect and they represent all the ideals we have about the future, what people can be. But that's not what people are actually like. Like they are a whole mix of really fucked-up shit and violent tendencies and moments of meanness and short-sightedness and stupidity and, you know, just to acknowledge that fullness in all the people that we're writing about, you know, and all the positions within the power structure that we're describing. I think that's, like you said, that's what makes your writing rich and believable and that's what makes it compelling. It's so tempting not to do that because we do want to throw our fantasies about the best into the people that we care about the most.
VC [22:19]: How do you make that balance when you know you're talking to and talking with structures at play, right? So, like, I hear what you're saying in that we want to paint the fullest pictures of every single person that we're describing or writing about and really situate them in their context, whether that's a fictional one or one that we actually saw and experienced and talked about in our fieldwork. How, how do you strike that balance between recognizing the ways that particular bodies and experiences and people have power and they don't, and they interact with each other? And how do you write about that and think about that without sort of inadvertently keeping that, you know, having the underdog kind of always be the best character, always being the person who, who sort of like theoretically—in the realm of fellowship, right— theoretically represents everything, that we have to look to the most marginalized to show how power really works or how to change things? How do you strike that balance where you're really just talking about how we're all really embroiled in, like you were saying Mary, the really-fucked up shit?
MW [23:26]: Well, I think one thing is to make sure that you're not making people do some kind of work for you. Make sure that the people are real people and not just symbols of something. And for one thing, when you think about your readers, I mean I think you gotta be writing to like actual embodied readers to you, because people are not going to believe your writing or find it credible or engaging if the people are just cardboard stereotypes, you know. I think that our readers who are mostly these days, like, undergraduate students, you know, they're super sensitive to that. So I think that's one thing that could maybe, maybe you think about that.
SD [24:04]: You have to, basically, it's a matter of working very hard. I think that's your point.
MW [24:09]: Yes.
SD [24:10]: I think that's something that we all share. That's, that's, that's right. We all share. For better or for worse.
VC [24:17]: Do you pay attention to how you describe bodies and sort of descriptors of bodies in your writing, for both of you? I think historically what anthropologists and a lot of older sort of scientific racist documents that are sort of part of the anthropological kind of archive, right. There's a lot of uncomfortable descriptors of bodies, really only of the people that are without power and really marginalized in the ethnographic context that they're writing from. So I'm thinking of the genre conventions from slavery in the U.S. and the ways that black bodies have been described and how those conventions still run through. Like, we're more apt to sort of describe somebody's body if they're somebody that we have to mark, right. If they're not a normative white cisgender male body, we mark these various things about them. How do we, how do you think about writing about bodies in the work that you do?
SD [25:09]: Well again, as I said, it's a matter of paying attention to them. I do. I do remember noticing in my own writing at one point that, writing about a physical fight between a man and woman, all the active, all the active verbs came from the man and all, and a lot of the passive verbs were associated with the woman and I just had to turn around and sit down and say: stop that, Chip, and turn around and you've got to give some active verbs to the woman. You know this is some time, this is some time in '59, '60, '61 and that's a long time ago, and there were there were patterns that had been just, you know, just one had absorbed. And one had absorbed them from reading the fiction of the ten, fifteen, twenty years before that. But you're always fighting what's been done before. And then when you do that and when you actually do work, I said, somebody says: my God, this is downright revolutionary. Then you don't realize it's not revolutionary. It's what other writers were doing, you know, thirty years before. Because it goes in, like, twenty-year waves. And to the extent if you are a reader you—and you are reading what is written in the previous twenty years—there is always what is written before that that is there as well.
MW [26:27]: Yeah, absolutely. And it's so humbling to realize how great writing previously that you had missed is. And I think reading widely and constantly, you know, it's just so, it's so great. And it gets us away from that progress narrative of, like, whatever is the latest is the newest and the first and the best because sometimes older texts can be so forward-thinking—that's not really the right phrase. So out there. But I think, you know, the answer can't be to hide either. It's important to be a little bit out and proud and the whole tradition of gay male fiction writing has been demanding the right to, to describe our queer bodily experiences in super graphic terms and just from saying to the straight world, like, read it or don't read it, I don't care. I think that's also important. For me, something that I think academic writing can make you do is that you write too defensively, you're always writing for the gatekeepers who are going to criticize you and that's not your readers. Your readers are those people that you don't know who are out there, who are so hungry for what you want to say and you gotta write freely for them.
SD [27:42]: It's like, to do that it's, I remember listening to—what is his name, poet—his name escapes me at this particular point, who is older than I, but sort of saying don't worry: everything you have to tell them will be great. And you know, and in practical terms, in terms of, in terms of students: once when one got started teaching and what have you, most of what you tell them was what's going to be.
VC [28:11]: Folks putting together the questions and the podcast, the vision for it, were thinking about what it means to write about gender and sexuality now and what it means to really write about gender and sexuality. So I was really curious about the bodies question, I've been thinking about that. Just reading. Historical texts and recent texts. I did a review of Mother Camp, which is a text from 1979 and the first—not necessarily marked as trans—but first ethnographic text that was working with female impersonators in the U.S. and all of the descriptions of the bodies were very, very graphic and specific. And in some ways that's a really uncomfortable thing. But in other ways that's really generative because it allows us to think about how we're writing about bodies, why we read about bodies and I appreciate what you said, Mary, about the tradition of male fiction writing and thinking about your writing, Chip. There's a real power in being able to sort of reclaim it back and say, like, actually let's write about these specific things that I think in your work, Mary, how do you sort of emphasize, no, like this is why it's important or this is why I'm looking at representations of the clit, right. And like, what it actually, how it shows up and that's not a word that you read a lot. Right? It's not a word that you hear and it's not something that you think a lot about in writing. So I just sort of was thinking about all of those things and I think I'm, I'm interested in that still and wondering, well, you're imagining yourself writing to especially when you write about the body. Do you feel comfortable writing all these descriptions knowing that you don't know who, whose hands your book or article will end up in?
MW [29:46]: I think that's where, for me, like living longer is good because you know your work, your work reaches audiences that you never anticipated, you know. But that only happens if you're writing stuff that is legible to somebody outside of the academy so, you know, if you want to write stuff that's super safe and where every phrase is so carefully worded so that no one could possibly take offense. You're also going to write and that almost no one's going to read. Honestly, you know, Black Jacobins is a book that was written about the Haitian revolution and Sid Mintz said to me what he liked about that book was that it was written so that somebody with a twelfth-grade education could read it. You know, and I was like, wow, that is such a novel thing for an academic to say, you know. So I think about that and I think about the way that some of the stuff that I wrote you know, like, it's tricky being a white American who writes about South America. And certainly there's a lot of policing of my work that has gone on in South America, which you just have to kind of accept, you know. But then the thing is, you realize there's this younger generation that is like, oh my God, this was so great when I read this book. This was something totally new. And I may have told you this already, V, because this was such a great moment but I had this friend Hugo Benavides who is an Ecuadorian anthropologist. He won't live in Ecuador anymore and, you know, he's an out gay man, very genderqueer, and he wrote this article that i helped him get published, because it was initially rejected, that said that, like, the origins of Ecuador as a nation where these painted boys who Columbus saw, who were a boat who were being shipped off to be like, those dancing boys through indigenous [unintelligible]. Of course Ecuadorians just, like, hate that, right. And this was, like, not their image of their country. Their image of their country is much more, like, nationalist, macho, whatever, you know. So he published that. And years went by and then he got this letter, handwritten letter from this organization of trans people in rural Ecuador, like in this little fishing village, and they named themselves after the name of those boys and they're like: "We found your article. We just want to say you told us there's a trans history to our nation," you know. And for him that was just, like, the most meaningful thing. So, you know, you're writing to the future that you don't know yet, to know.
SD [32:13]: I found the name of the poet: Richard Howard, by the way. And I think what you're saying is very, very true and also very important, indeed. So I remember a lot of the gay people that I knew when I was a kid, everybody from the organist who was working for, who worked for my father in his undertaking establishment on Seventh Avenue in the forties. You know, and Herman was gay. It was, there's no, no question about it. And was fairly out gay man, as far as he went. And I've talked, I've written art, essays about him that are in books like In the Life, which is an early collection of black gay writings where I, which, which I was invited to be a part of a fairly long time ago. And they do come as they, they do arrive as new. For a lot of people. The simple notion that Shakespeare was probably gay. There are still a whole lot of people from the Midwest for whom that's going to be new. I've written about these things, you know, in a book called The Motion of Light and Water and in various and sundry essays in which, I have an essay called “The Coming Out.” Which, among other things, it's about the way that word has changed its meaning, because coming out had two very specific meanings in the course of its history and it was only, it was only with the Stonewall riots that its second meaning came to the fore. That's, the first meaning was, basically you came out when you had your first sexual experience. That's what coming out was. It had nothing to do with relating to, you know, straight people, telling straight people you were gay and something to do with what you did. And it was a thing you did with your body, when you came out by putting your body in a certain position. Those are the kinds of things that I, I've always been interested in and they do inform the kinds of things that I will write. Not only the science fiction but [unintelligible]. One of the things that I've written is, a lot of things that I've written are pornographic. And so a lot of the pornography is basically, deals with writing specifically about things of the body. One of the few science-fiction writers I know, I know several science-fiction writers who have written pornography under pen names to make money. But I'm one of the few who writes it under my own name.
MW [34:45]: I'm interested in, you know, over the life course moving from writing fiction to writing nonfiction. That's fascinating to me, that, that would seem appealing. I can imagine that it does because I do think, I find as I get older that those memories of the past start to seem very precious and very much like they're gonna vanish if you don't write them down. For me, you know, it's, it's hard not to fantasize about writing fiction after I retire but i'm constantly reminded that all of the fiction that I know of that has been written by anthropologists is just terrible. It really exposes how structured academic writing is and all the aspects of plot and so forth that we don't really deal with and maybe aren't very good at. But I love the fact that you, Chip, are so engaged in writing about bodies because I've been trying to read more science fiction lately because it is really interesting to me in a variety of ways. And it's nothing that I liked as a young person. I think it was so associated for me with straight men. There's a lot of imagination about the larger aspects of how the society works or the technology. But this, you know, the people themselves don't really have believable bodies.
SD [36:00]: There are certain things that I try to be rigorously truthful. And I don't always succeed. You know, every once in a while, I surprise myself when I suddenly realize, wait a minute: that could not have happened that way. Or I read something else. A cousin of—something that's talked about in a book of mine, which is a book where I tried to be as rigorously truthful as I could, called The Motion of Light and Water. Which was, in which I write this as an autobiographical work. But one of the things that starts it is my, my cousin who lived upstairs from where we lived in New York and she's still alive. But she wrote a piece that appeared—she was ahead of me at the Bronx High School of Science. She went into the Bronx School of Science and she wrote a piece that appeared in the school literary magazine and it was called “Sleeping Beauty.” It was about my father's funeral parlor. And at one point she's coming up the stairs and she leans down to look around the edge of the door into a place where there was a dead body. Now I knew that little room because I lived in this house, she left that house and then moved up to Fish Avenue in the Bronx but I remember going back to check. And I realized. No matter—Manny was a tall girl, she was almost six feet tall. But the door was so far away from, the door was so far away from the bottom of the stairs there's no way she could possibly, she'd have had to have been ten feet tall to stand on the stairs, the lowest stair and lean around that. I don't know whether she was there, whether she was changing the geography, I never got around to it, got a chance to ask her. But the thing is, I was—it was also the first place I realized that you can't trust everything you read. And if you go back and look at it yourself, there are going to be things that are wrong with it. And so that's actually talked about in that book. And one of the things that came up was about the number of things that I tried to be. It's a book in which I did try to be rigorously honest about what happened. And I still didn't, and I didn't succeed with everything.
MW [38:23]: I can almost Imagine that—you were talking before about people you like and people you don't like. I can almost imagine that it could be harder to write truths about your own memories than it would be to write truths in a way when you're crafting fiction, when you're writing about your own past. It's like the desire to remember things in a certain way, represent them in certain ways can just be so overpowering.
SD [38:50]: Since this, a lot of this covers the early years of my marriage, I did show the manuscript to my ex-wife. Who gave it a very thorough critique and pointed out lots of things so, you know, pointed out lots of things to me that I had . . . I don't think there was any suggestion she made that I didn't, that I didn't follow. Although she was always referring, referring to things that had happened frequently in some of her early problems, she refers to things that I knew, for instance, were slightly different. And that she'd had a miscarriage, after the miscarriage she was taken and she was, and she and my mother, my mother came in and helped us and brought her up to my mother's apartment and put her in my sister’s room, which was in the back. And somehow Marilyn thought that she'd been, which was the largest room in the apartment. With its own bathroom and somehow Marilyn thought, because I was the boy, then obviously I had been given that apartment. And that it was my room that she was in.
MW [39:57]: I think this is an area where anthropologists could learn a lot from novelists. Over the last few years we've really, we've worried a lot about misrepresenting the people that we write about or writing about them in ways that they don't like. And I think there's a real tension there. Like, we can't, we're not their publicists, like we can't just only say things they want to hear but we are super self-critical now about that responsibility. But it's like we think we just discovered this and it's just our problem, you know. And if you look at writers of fiction and nonfiction, like, they've been struggling with this for years. There's so many people who have written memoirs and semiautobiographical novels or novels. Their ex-wives, their ex-partners, their mothers, their fathers, their children are, like, furious with them, or the town where they grew up in or, you know. And so this is something I think writers have been grappling with a long time and anthropologists are newcomers to the issue.
SD [40:55]: Yeah.
VC [40:56]: Yeah especially, I think, as writing and scholarship becomes more widely available we have to more intentionally contend with the power that, I mean, that any writer has. That, you know, if you, if your work gets out there, you have a responsibility to, to speak to or at least to hear the responses of the people you're writing about or to hear out the critique. So I appreciate, Chip, the story about having your ex-wife read the memoir and say: that's not how I remember this thing. And you're the one who's, who's writing the text and who gets the final say at the end of the day because there's your book. It's your story. It's a complicated thing where there's no obvious answer but certainly where we have to sort of take all of these different structures and situations into consideration. I think we probably want to just have one last question, if that's OK. The last question I want to end with is: I know some of the folks pulling together the questions were thinking about activism and I also know from chatting with you both separately that I don't think you describe yourself as activists. So I just want to, I want to ask in relationship to this broad question of activism: how do you think your work could be used to make substantial change in the ways that marginalized populations are treated, their experiences, etc.? And this is especially on the grounds of, along the lines of gender and sexuality, so queer bodies, trans bodies, cis women, and trans women, etc., and obviously you know from racialized and class backgrounds from all over. How would you imagine your work making change, if at all?
SD [42:36]: I will go, so I will go this far. No work is popular because of its radical Content. Any work that is popular is popular because it's something that a lot of people might hear, which is not so radical. You know what? I wrote a book, I wrote a book called About Writing and it's a book about writing. I've gotten a lot of praise from it from writers who basically say they were glad to hear somebody do a book that was not about how you, too, can write your novel in just six weeks. But how hard it is to write. It is. You know, I think I've always found it hard. And you know, and how writing is a hard profession. I have found most of my life that having sex for me was relatively easy. There were institutions that were always, that were set up for it. There were areas where you could go cruising. There were, there were movie theaters where you could go and go and have sex and what have you. And I, and I built up a pretty large background of having a lot of sex and there were two. You know I find them in New York. You know I go there a lot, a lot of expense [unintelligible]. In that sense I don't think I was doing anything radical or unusual. I was thinking, I'm just doing other things a lot of other people were doing. Only not a lot of other people were talking about. So I wrote what I could write about them and—I know that one. One such book is called Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. And the local publisher is going to come out with a twentieth anniversary edition sometime soon, which is very nice. But, but I don't think of it as a very practical book. The artist David Wojnarowicz has pictures that he drew in the same movie balconies of the same movie theaters that I was writing about, and I thought I would look [unintelligible] David and David's pictures of the balcony of the, whatever the name of that movie theater was on Third Ave, variety photo plays movie you get up there in Third, Third Avenue and you can read my accounts of the same, of the movie, that movie theater and a couple other movies within a few blocks of it as well. The Jefferson, which was the Spanish-language movie theater and the Metropole was an opera, which was another one, which was not as ordinary but I could call ordinary. It was English and it was a porn theater. You do your best and you write. What is it Derrida says: genres are not to be mixed. Which is to say, you don't have to worry about them. They all are mixed. You never have a pure genre. They aren't pure. They are all—all genres are bastard genres. This is true. And you just, you have to remember that and it's, you know, and you just, you know, you have to be rigorous with yourself and you have to be willing to listen other people.
MW [45:54]: Huh. That, that, that idea of listening to other people is such a complicated one because one thing I've seen thinking about feminist struggles is that a lot of the women that, that I know of an older generation who have really succeeded in doing things, they did it by not listening to other people. Like, people told them you can't do this, you will never do this. There is no room for you. Also, one of my teachers who is a black man from the Caribbean had people just tell him, like, you cannot be an anthropologist, you know. And they just went ahead and did it anyway. So sometimes not listening is really important if you're going to succeed in doing anything activist or radical, but on the other hand, some of those people later on, they had not developed the skill of being able to listen to other people and accept criticism about their work or their choices. And so I don't know, this is an interesting question. Like, when do we need to listen to others? And when do we need to not listen to others, and especially when you're trying to do something that is going to be politically meaningful? I think that's such a hard question. Everyone has to find an answer, I guess.
V Chaudhry [47:07]: I appreciate you taking a stab at the answer. I think it certainly requires a real attention to what we're doing, why we're doing it, and how we're doing it, for and with, right. So: thank you so much for indulging my questions and for thinking through all the stuff that is certainly not easy and I really appreciate the opportunity, Beth and Hilary, to moderate this conversation.
MW [47:32]: Well, thank you for moderating. It was really an honor to be in conversation with Chip.
SD [00:47:40]: it was a great pleasure to be in conversation with you, Mary.
BD [47:43]: Thank you to Chip, Mary, and V for such an engaging conversation. Please stay tuned for our next episode and thank you again for listening.
Thanks to Samuel Delany, Mary Weismantel, V Chaudhry, Hilary Leathem for their contributions to this episode. Special thanks also to our executive producer Jara Carrington.
AnthroPod features interviews with current anthropologists about their work, current events, and their experiences in the field. You can find AnthroPod at SoundCloud, subscribe to it on iTunes, or use our RSS feed. If you have suggestions for future episodes or feedback on this episode, please leave us a comment to the right, or get in touch via Facebook or Twitter.
Music: All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear.