Buttons Are Not the Only Art: A Conversation between Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore and Jessica Hoffmann

CAN MEMOIR BE HONEST, emotionally or otherwise? Is counterculture actually possible as a way to live? What happens to those who dream of a radical queer community when the dream fails?

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s latest book, The End of San Francisco, is a despairing memoir of loss — the loss of the dream of radical queer San Francisco, the loss of formative friendships, the loss of personal and political innocence. Written in a free-associative style and merging personal and social history, it is — like all of Sycamore’s work — innovative both formally and politically.

A longtime agitator for the potential of the queerest fringes, Sycamore explicitly questions the memoir genre, and all forms of normalcy. Her book opens not in 1990s San Francisco, when the author first attempted a community of queer visionaries, but almost twenty years later, at her father’s deathbed in Washington, D.C., where she grew up — and where she confronts him about sexually abusing her when she was a child.

Sycamore and I are friends and frequent collaborators. We have been talking for years about the possibilities and disappointments of literary genres and queer communities, and we recently talked about The End of San Francisco, out now from City Lights.


Jessica Hoffman: You once told me something about your grandmother’s notion of what is “ugly” in art.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore:  My grandmother was a visual artist. When I was a kid, she was the one person I looked up to in my immediate family. Her rhetoric was all about dreaming — creating something beautiful, using used buttons to make a collage, blending up lint from the dryer and making handmade paper out of it. As a kid I really believed in her. Growing into my own work, I was shocked by the ways she refused to enter it. She was born around the turn of the 20th century, and she made her life as a visual artist. She was a woman who wasn’t “supposed” to be an artist. She knew a lot of gay artists. And yet the two things about my work that horrified her were that it was sexual and that it was political. Both of those things to her made it “ugly,” or weakened the work; it wasn’t “art.” She would ask why I was wasting my talents.

JH: You have a clear commitment to emotional truth in this book, surfacing the ways that memoirs often lie and can’t be believed, and trying to create a different way of writing memoir.

MBS: Memoir [can] take the most interesting, complicated, messy lives, and make them into a very tidy package. It becomes this dead object, fitting messiness into something streamlined, [with a] triumphant ending where everything comes together. It’s not necessarily happy, but it suddenly all has meaning. In calling this book memoir in spite of the limitations that I see so often in the genre, I wanted to challenge the idea that there is one truth even in me, or that memory falls into a linear pattern. I wanted to show the complications in memory. A lot of the book is me calling other people on the phone and saying, “Do you remember this?” Then we have a conversation about it and I actually remember things I didn’t remember before, or I remember them in a different way. I wanted to put that multilayered memory in the book and I wanted to work against the linear narrative.

This book is structured by feeling. I’m writing about things that have broken my heart. Maybe the possibility for finding something else comes through expressing that vulnerability. And part of the vulnerability is showing the gaps in the narrative, allowing there to be questions, or allowing things to be contradictory, and not trying to fit it into a structure that doesn’t fit my life. I’m searching through feelings to see where they lead. I hop from San Francisco in the early ’90s to New York in ’98 and Boston in ’94 to … I wanted to preserve that sense of being all these places at once, because that is where I am emotionally, and I wanted to write memory through emotion.

JH: When the book starts, it seems that innocence is already very much over. And then throughout the book, it keeps ending. Yet you, the narrator, keep hoping, keep believing in something.

MBS: In a way, the book is an excavation. The kind of relationship model that I have, which I discovered in the early ’90s when I was first creating myself outside of the suffocation of childhood and my parents and what I was supposed to be — I was creating relationships that were based on digging, where you reveal everything about yourself, and then when everything is revealed, you keep going further, and that’s how the intimacy is created. In a way that’s what I’m doing with the book. Like, here’s something that didn’t work, that left me thrown against a wall or heartbroken or desperate or where I saw the failure of all these ideals.

But in looking at the book after it was done, I was struck by how much I believed, over and over. And I keep believing in the same things. At the core, I still believe in the same values that I believed in in 1992. Even if I haven’t seen the model succeed, I think I still believe in it. 

JH: What are those values? What were you hoping to find, or create, in radical queer community in San Francisco?

MBS: For me the core of a radical queer politic is not believing in the world around us and seeking to create something else in the ruins of a status-crazed consumer culture that is centered around hierarchical forms of violence — homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, racism, classism, ableism [and] so many other things. It’s about always being in flux and challenging hierarchy wherever we see it, whether that means in intimate-partner violence or in lack of accessibility in queer spaces or racism or gender hierarchies [in our cultures]. It’s a dedication to exposing and dismantling hierarchies and building something more fluid and disruptive, shifting and dynamic and flamboyant, instead.

JH: Which is why it’s heartbreaking when new hierarchies, new conformities, happen in these communities. I feel like The End of San Francisco is the opposite of nostalgia. Nostalgia is fundamentally conservative, and its conservatism is often embedded in the form in which stories are told. The End of San Francisco seems to me radical, not just in content, but formally, in insisting on other ways of remembering and documenting. 

MBS: Some people who have not read this book but have a sense of what it might be about will say things to me like, “You’re right! It’s over!” Implicit in that is that there was this mythical golden age when everything was better. The early ’90s [in San Francisco] exist alongside the ’70s in some people’s imaginations as a time of possibility for queer freaks and outlaws and artists and troublemakers to exist in the ruins. I think there’s so much danger to that.

There were things that were possible then that are not possible now — possibilities to create your own world in a more complete way that have disappeared, not just with several waves of gentrification that make the cost of living much higher, but also the ways that gentrification has erased the possibilities for imagining something outside of just another consumer trend.

But also in the ’90s, it felt like everyone was dying — that’s what being queer meant to me. Everyone was dying of AIDS and drug addiction and suicide. In the book I say, “Some of the dead were among us, just like us, just trying to survive. Others were more in the distance, the elders we barely got to know except as we lost them.” That was such a heartbreaking time. I think what nostalgia does is take away all of the actual experience and replace it with a gloss.

And that’s not that different from gentrification in a certain sense. Even, say, Patti Smith’s book about New York [Just Kids]. It’s talking about a pre-gentrification New York, but through a gentrified lens. She makes it seem like she was just hanging out at the Chelsea Hotel and suddenly met every famous male artist of the moment and rose to fame by coincidence. Everybody knows that in order to get famous, you need to work at it. It’s interesting because she talks about all that Mapplethorpe did to get famous, but really doesn’t expose the mechanisms that enabled her to get famous. It’s a dishonest book: she doesn’t punctuate the glamour, and in that way she creates this nostalgia for a New York that never really existed. It’s a kind of dishonesty that participates in the mythology of New York. It was a different New York, and things were possible that are not possible now, but the romanticization shuts off the possibilities for honesty, and that’s something that I want to avoid in my own writing. I want to expose the dynamics in an honest, revealing, and vulnerable way, rather than participating in a nostalgia for the possibilities of the past.

A lot of people relate to the idea of the end of bohemia. My question is more: can it ever exist? For me, the end of San Francisco was the beginning. I never moved to San Francisco and found community and everything I wanted and felt amazing and transformed. There were moments, and then [whatever was created] was destroyed, and that destroyed me.

JH: The book is about much more than just your time in San Francisco. It takes place in many different cities. But of course the title is meaningful, and San Francisco as a concept is meaningful, and complicated. Reading The End of San Francisco, I thought about what it means for a place to mean so much — to be, not just a geographic location, but a symbol, a metaphor, a place invested with so much hope.

MBS: I first moved to San Francisco when I was 19 in 1992. It’s literally the place where I learned my queerness — where I learned how to articulate my politics, my sexuality, my desire, my intimacy, my visions of trust and negotiation and communication and flamboyance. In certain ways, it is this very specific place that I lived in the early ’90s. In starting to write this book, I found myself in that literal place 20 years later, trapped, feeling the lack and the limitations and the ways in which things that had once given me hope had become walls.

I wanted to investigate what this place meant to me, and not just the physical place, but this vision of radical queer community, of lust and love and intimacy on our own terms, and activism against the status quo, this vision of creating chosen families and systems of behavior and connection not predicated on straight or gay normalcy.

In a sense, “San Francisco” in the title of the book represents anywhere that that journey took place — which for me involves New York, Boston, Seattle, all these other places — and also that internal place of trying to find some kind of radical homeostasis. 

In a certain way the book is about how many times I believed. I think about it as exposing the limitations of my own life, the gaps and the places where everything kind of stops. But in a lot of ways, it’s about how I kept believing in the same things and that is sort of this idea of San Francisco — whether that be a [space for] radical sexuality or transforming outside of the status quo or defiance or creating queerness on our own terms. 

JH: Of course, San Francisco doesn’t only represent these things for you personally. It is symbolic and a mecca for entire queer cultures and other “outsider” cultures. And that is inextricably linked to how San Francisco has ended for other people. The very fact of queer people or others flocking to the literal place San Francisco because of what it represents to them leads to the displacement of people who already live there. It is a small city, with a limited supply of housing … The book addresses waves of gentrification and queer communities’ role in that.

MBS: In writing about the early ’90s, there’s a part where I say, “We were the beginning of the end and we didn’t know what to do because we had just found the beginning.” I’m talking about the Mission in the early ’90s, and mostly white, young queers who were escaping abusive families and other cities, or homes in the same city, where we couldn’t express our gender, our sexual, political, or social identities. We came to San Francisco, to that particular neighborhood, and served in many ways as the lure for the kind of consumer mentality and dramatic gentrification that we were so horrified by while, at the same time, being aware that we were part of it. That’s the paradox. It plays out over and over again across the United States, and around the world in some cases.