Hannah Bressler: Have you read Maggie Nelson before? What drew you to this book?
Tara Miller: I hadn't read her work before, though I'd heard Bluets referenced many times and had it on my list. Then I kept seeing links to reviews of Argonauts popping up on newsfeeds and in literary mags, so I was intrigued. As a queer woman and avid reader and writer I feel like I'm always starved for literature about queers. There seriously is not enough out there. I'm also always drawn to genre-bending work, so the combination of queerness, genre-bending, and critical acclaim (and your suggestion to do this piece) combined to form a magical ball of motivation.
How about you? Had you read Maggie Nelson before?
HB: I read Bluets because a cashier at a bookstore told me to. And then I loved her writing after that because she wrote about longing without any shame. There's a kind of intimacy in her writing (especially with all the "you" references, whether she outright names the person or not). She breaks pretty much every rule I was ever taught in the “literary poetry” world.
I also love that she's academic enough to be noticed in academic circles, but that she's still really interesting to me emotionally, like reading a carefully crafted personal letter.
This book talks about gender a lot. What did you think of the metaphor she uses of gender as a color?
On page 15 she writes:
“A friend says he thinks of gender as a color. Gender does share with color a certain ontological indeterminacy: it isn’t quite right to say that an object is a color, nor that the object has a color. Context also changes it: all cats are gray, etc. Nor is color voluntary, precisely. But none of these formulations means that the object in question is colorless.”
TM: I think the way she talks about color and, through the metaphor, gender not being a color or having a color complicates the way our society and people within often try to define or explain "biological" gender.
I also appreciate the reference to color (gender) not being voluntary, which can often be how people conceptualize genderqueer identity. Genderqueer identity can be voluntary, but it isn't necessarily.
This reminds me of a another quote that spoke to me on page 53:
“How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?”
I think this refusal to define/be defined/be categorized is an important aspect of the queerness she explores in the book.
HB: Ahhh, that part feels good to my soul to read. There is such an anxiety in the need for an absolute conclusion, instead of going for the harder questions.
Do you see Queer culture as another word for "otherness" sometimes? Sometimes I see Queerness as a statement like "You don't get to script me. I'm scripting me." for sexuality, gender identity, etc.
TM: Yes, definitely. Although I do also identify as a lesbian, I am attracted to the label "queer" because it is ambiguous and broad and can absolutely refer to the right to or assuming the right to not be scripted, or to be other, outside what is perceived as the “norm.”
The part where Nelson talks about what defines "same-sex" relationships is so on point. On page 25 she writes:
“To devote yourself to someone else’s pussy can be a means of devoting yourself to your own. But whatever sameness I’ve noted in my relationships with woman is not the sameness of Woman, and certainly not the sameness of parts. Rather, it is the shared, crushing understanding of what it means to live in a patriarchy.”
HB: God, I love that quote. “...certainly not the sameness of parts.” But still a natural solidarity there. You don't have to try and explain to that person. I have that understanding with femmey-men too. It's not the common feeling "We look the same as each other" and more that "we are viewed and treated with a similar unfairness. We both understand this ongoing oppression.”
TM: Do you encounter ideas of solidarity and feminism that are connected more to a biological sameness?
HB: You mean how people expect the idea of me being biologically similar to someone instead of a similar in social position will cause solidarity? Honestly, what the fuck do I have in common with Hillary Clinton? Don’t insult my story like that.
TM: Hahah yass exactly.
HB: Sometimes when people tell me they're queer, I just have this feeling of relief wash over me, like "Oh, so you get it." Or post-Christian people.
TM: What is that? I've never heard the term.
HB: It's a group of people I always have my ear to the ground for, people who grew up with Christianity, like really inside of it, but for one reason or another are now not culturally connected to it. For me, I feel that Christianity is inside me. I think of Christianity as my ethnicity.
I think about the Christianity/queer-kid connection a lot. I grew up in a culture that constantly told us we were outsiders to the secular world, that most people were not like us. (Like most queer-kids have to live.)
TM: Can you talk more about that outsider connection?
HB: I think for queerness, as an identity, it's playing off of "standardization" of Straightness. Even queer is still etymologically a Straight-centric word.
For me, I was growing up in a fairly small Christian world that was making it's own little beautiful culture, but was still really obsessed with what everyone else was doing “out there”. There was/still are marked cultural difference(s) between the religious and secular worlds, but it was so often a secular-centric experience for religious people.
In Argonauts, I see looking at what it would mean to try to get legitimacy/acceptance from the larger (non-queer) culture. I think she understands how futile it is to try and gain legitimacy from heteronormative culture, but she writes books explaining her queer family experience anyway.
Another place she explores being an outsider is in the false polarity between "stay freaky" or "assimilate". On page 81 she writes,
“Later, from our [bed] we ordered X-Men: First Class. Afterward we debated assimilation vs. revolution. I’m no cheerleader for assimilation per se, but in the movie the assimilationists were advocating for nonviolence and identification with the Other in that bastardized Buddhist way that gets me every time. You expressed sympathy for the revolutionaries, who argued, Stay freaky and blow ‘em up before they come for you, because no matter what they say, the truth is they want you dead, and you’re fooling yourself if you think otherwise.”
TM: Yes, that question of legitimacy is always challenging. What does it mean for queers and the queer identity that we are defined in relation to normative straights?
HB: Good point. By the way, I love love love how Nelson talks about the sexuality of mothers.
TM: Did Argonauts challenge your perceptions of motherhood and pregnancy?
HB: I like how Nelson shows that to be queer and pregnant is like holding two conflicting stereotypes. On page 13,
“Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one’s “normal” state, and occasions a radical intimacy with--and radical alienation from--one’s body?”
So pregnancy is queer, but it’s also normative? We attach so many conflicting things to our mammal selves.
She goes on to write,
“How can an experience [pregnancy] so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity?”
TM: Yes! I think that passage definitely articulated something I had felt but not extended all the way to the idea of pregnancy actually being queer in and of itself.
HB: One place I was challenged intellectually is when she brings up the authority of babycare books written by men. On page 43:
“The perversity is not lost on me that the most oft-cited, well-respected, best-selling books about the caretaking of babies-- Winnicott, Spock, Sears,, Weissbluth-- have been and are mostly still by men.”
I've read those authors years ago, and at the time, it didn't even occur to me that almost all the major child-rearing authority books are men. I don’t really know why it’s so unbalanced, but I’ll speculate that it might be because of education. If you feel naive about a subject you might want to read an author with "Ph.D" after their name.
Also, women have only been going en masse to higher education recently. Maybe in the next few generations of parenting books will be from a broader sampling (not all White, all male, all academic backgrounds, etc.) I’ve read quite a few other parenting books by women, but alas, they aren’t seen as classics yet.
TM: I also wonder if it has to do with perceptions of pregnant women and by extension women in general, as more emotional/less capable of objectivity. Less authoritative.
HB: That is definitely a prejudice of our culture. That "pregnant women are emotional and don't make logical sense" thing. Lady hormones! Yegads!
TM: And the perception is so pervasive that even when we're talking about an experience common to many women (pregnancy and childbirth) society still defaults to men who have not gone through those experiences to "explain" to pregnant women what's going on with our bodies and in our minds.
HB: Haha. Dark humor.
When I started studying midwifery and women's health in high school a lot of the curriculum came out of this “take back our bodies” movement led by radical women in the 1960’-70’s. I was young enough then to not know just how male-dominated pregnancy and childbirth were in White America so very recently.
Can we talk about the sex part of the book?
TM: Yeaasss. This quote about child sexuality on page 66 spoke to me soooo deeply
“If you’re looking for sexual tidbits as a female child, and the only ones that present themselves depict child rape or other violations (all my favorite books in my preteen years: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Clan of the Cave Bear, The World According to Garp, as well as the few R-rated movies I was allowed to see—Fame, most notably, with this incredible scene of Irene Cara being asked to take her shirt off and suck her thumb by a skeezy photographer who promised to make her a star), then your sexuality will form around that fact.”
That was absolutely my experience as a kid. Through my coming out process I’ve moved toward acceptance of the fact that not only am I attracted to women, but I am a sexual being. And of course this started early, because although we don’t like to say it, kids’ sexuality exists. Just as Nelson describes her experience with reading and her sexuality as a child, I devoured books and dog-eared pages to find descriptions of sexual events. And the descriptions that appeared in my books almost always involved rape or violation. So for a very long time, that was the only way I could experience sexual pleasure. “My sexuality formed around that fact” (Nelson, 66)
Nelson goes on to write in a passage about Alice Munro’s short story “Wild Swans:”
“In just a few short pages, Munro lays it all out: how the force of one’s adolescent curiosity and incipient lust often must war with the need to protect oneself from disgusting and wicked violators, how pleasure can coexist with awful degradation without meaning the degradation was justified or a species of wish fulfillment; how it feels to be both an accomplice and a victim; and how such ambivalences can live on in an adult sexual life.”
HB: Nelson just slays me with her understanding of living inside that paradox. I've only ever found one other piece of fiction that spoke to a “coercion but not necessarily victimization, and definitely unequal roles in sexuality" story, while honoring a person’s autonomous choice. I wrote a review in AFO’s first issue, “How The Light Gets In.” But I’m always on the lookout for more stories like this.
I think for the kid in me, I needed to read Argonauts (and lots of other queer literature) to tell myself I don't always have to be seeking approval from the "legitimate authority” of sexuality. I read this to be reminded that our humanity is broad and complex, and people like Maggie Nelson hold space for these strange things.
TM: Yeah absolutely. I feel like I'm still re-learning and re-teaching myself to understand and accept my sexuality. Maybe always will be.
HB: It reminds me of Esther Perel (an eroticism theorist) who says that a part of eroticism is intrinsically transgressive. Not transgressive as in rape, but coming from a deep desire to do what you’re not "supposed" to do. One idea of what makes something sexy is that it's "exotic" or “taboo” or "unscripted". And maybe this is why a lot of (non-gay) people think of queer culture as hyper-sexual, because it’s so “off script.”
TM: There is a ridiculous fascination with the sexual component of queer relationships in straight culture.
HB: It seems like Nelson is playing with that a little bit, that prurient interest in Queer sexual relationships by writing so much about her own sexual queer relationship.
TM: And by writing about it frankly, matter-of-factly, in the same breath as talking about giving an academic lecture, being a professor. I feel like this format and juxtaposition works to normalize sex in a way.
HB: She's like "So, obviously you’re curious about my sex life too.”
TM: I feel like that fascination, especially when it extends to literal in your face questions about your sexual acts with your partner, can make you feel so powerless. But boldly writing about it takes agency, power back.
HB: Yeah, I thought it must have happened to her a lot, that on the spot question, while she’s in a couple with a genderless person: "So, how do you two even have sex?" So she freakin spells it out.
On page 85: "I am interested in ass-fucking.”
God, what a bold person.
TM: Love that line. The way she plays with public/private is fascinating.
On page 102 she writes:
“I will always aspire to contain my shit as best I can, but I am no longer interested in hiding my dependencies in an effort to appear superior to those who are more visibly undone or aching.”
HB: Such a powerful statement. She knows what she’s doing with this book. She understands that telling her experience and owning it so much makes a lot of room for queer life, queer family, a mother’s sexuality, and other taboos in white, straight, academia.
TM: Yes! And that's why I’m so interested in the format, the genre-bending.
HB: I love this genre-bending work. It feels like essay/poetry/journal/love letter. Why don't they teach us to write collage-style in university? It’s readable, interesting, and academic. It connects lots of ideas without losing the thread of their commonality.
TM: Academia, the literary world defines through the canon what is "good" and "acceptable" literature. This poem/essay/something that goes on and on without breaks but feels succinct and readable contributes to redefining and expanding who is allowed to participate in literary culture and who writes it and what they write about.
I think genre-bending (which I think of as conflating genres or creating works that don’t fit into established genres) is a way to challenge existing narratives and forms. It’s one thing to write about queerness and race in genres where it hasn’t been done before, but by having the form mimic the revolutionary act of writing about “othered” experiences, as an “othered” person, you write yourself or those experiences out of the establishment in a way.
I love how genre-bending works like Argonauts force those who exist outside marginalized experiences to do more work to step into the previously “othered” narrative, center marginalized experiences instead of bending them to fit mainstream or established ones. It’s more inclusive, accessible to those often silenced by or excluded from the mainstream literary world.
HB: Even though I've always felt like a writer, I think the culture of literary academic authority is one reason I stayed away from English departments. It felt full of "legitimizers" or authorities of word-art. I remember thinking "I am wayyyy too weird for you people.”
TM: Yep exactly. Claudia Rankine is another poet whose work and form simultaneously employ and defy “conventions” and demand agency in a brilliant, powerful, and empowering way.
I loved this part on page 69:
“Why did it take me so long to find someone with whom my perversities were not only compatible, but perfectly matched?…
You pretend to use me, make a theater of heeding only your pleasure while making sure I find mine. Really, though, it’s more than a perfect match, as that implies a kind of stasis. Whereas we’re always moving, shape-shifting. No matter what we do, it always feels dirty without feeling lousy.”
HB: Do you feel that way about your partner? Like "perversities matched”?
TM: Yes definitely. And I very much identified with the way she describes it as not static, always moving.
HB: That’s beautiful.
I love how she talks about “compatible perversities” so nonchalantly, like "So yeah, I'm a pervert. And so is everyone with a sexuality. Moving on." LOL.
But the other side of saying “everyone’s a pervert” is queer invisibility. She doesn't appear queer sometimes, with all the street cred, or abuse that might get her.
I loved this passage on page 83:
“Our last night at the Sheraton, we have dinner… You pass as a guy; I, as pregnant… On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more “male,” mine, more and more “female.” But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness.”
I’ve usually heard "passing" used in regards to race, like a POC passing as White. More recently I hear it referencing passing as a different gender, or as a different sexual identity. You can "pass" (as White or Straight or whatever the larger culture you’re trying to get to accept you,) but sometimes it makes you feel erased, even if passing means you become safer and have more social privilege.
Tara, I know you mentioned this part on page 5 as a part that spoke to you. What part struck you especially?
“Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new””
TM: This still is one of the most powerful passages of the book for me. I'm always interested in when and why we say I love you.
And I don't think people say it enough. Not in the sense that we need to be reminded of the same thing or an empty thing over and over. That’s why I love this passage. Saying I love you more often isn’t about reminding someone, people that you love them, but about finding that intention and love in different moments and contexts. I tell my girlfriend I love her when I come home to see her reading on the couch, when she steps out of the shower, when she’s washing the dishes, when I’m far away from her and I miss her, when her dog is dying, when she explains how I am feeling without me saying a word. And each time I tell her, it means something different. I love the idea of being intentional with that difference.
The reference to the Argo is genius here. Can we wrap up with your thoughts on the title of the book?
HB: I’m not sure why she gave it that title. I've read all over the internet about it, trying to find why she choose it, and reread all the times she references "Argo" in the book. At first I thought she was using it as a giant metaphor that encompasses many themes, like the way she used the color blue in her other book "Bluets". In a few passages it seems she writes "Argo" to reference "non-binary" things. But I think it's also a naming, and renaming, of a metaphor while keeping the essence the same. Like any writer, she struggles with language, trying to be as precise as possible. I think Argonauts is about how some things are not classifiable, even as you name them.
Maggie Nelson is author of nine books in total, including Bluets, which Hannah seriously suggests you read.
Tara and Hannah are staff writers at Art For Ourselves.