To Rouse and Repel: A Conversation with Maggie Nelson on the Rhetoric of Freedom

September 20, 2021   •   By Meredith Maran

WHO IS MAGGIE NELSON? If you’ve heard of her; if you’ve read her, how were you introduced?  Probably not in an airport book shop, nor on the fourth floor of your local big-box book emporium. More likely, you encountered her in one of the left-of-mainstream worlds she and her readers inhabit: feminist academia, poetry, queerness, art criticism, radical motherhood, radical family, radical thought, radical everything. Nelson, a New York Times best-selling author, is that rare bird, the “cult favorite” who lives and works in that tiny triangle where bestsellerdom, artistry, and radical thought meet.


Nelson’s Wikipedia bio attempts to tame the unruliness of her wild career.


[A] genre-busting writer defying classification, working in autobiography, art criticism, theory, […] scholarship, and poetry. […] [T]he recipient of a 2016 MacArthur Fellowship, a 2012 Creative Capital Literature Fellowship, a 2011 NEA Fellowship in Poetry, a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship in Nonfiction […] [and] the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism.


Nelson also holds a PhD in Literature from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and has taught literature and writing at Wesleyan University, Pratt Institute of Arts, and the New School.


In a 2016 profile timed to the publication of Nelson’s ninth book, The Argonauts, Hilton Als wrote, 


the slim, intense volume, which tells the philosophical, sometimes comic tale of Nelson’s ever-developing consciousness, combines — like a number of other masterpieces of American autobiography — memoir, literary analysis, humor, and reporting with vivid instances of both the familiar and the strange. 


Als quotes Sara Marcus’s review in the Los Angeles Times: Nelson circles “away and back again to central questions about deviance and normalcy, family-making and love.”


If you haven’t yet happened upon the marvelous Ms. Nelson, I invite you to start with On Freedom, her 10th and best book. On page one, Nelson squarely addresses the book’s titular theme. “Can you think of a more depleted, imprecise, or weaponized word?” she asks, pointing to the word’s prominent role in the Great Pandemic Mask Debate. “‘Your freedom is killing me!’ read the signs of protesters trying to end the pandemic; ‘Your health is not more important than my liberty!’ maskless others shout back.” 


Nelson adds that


“Freedom dreams” that consistently figure freedom’s arrival as a day of reckoning […] can be crucial to helping us imagine futures that we want. But they can also condition us into thinking of freedom as a future achievement rather than as an unending present practice, something already going on.


Nelson returns to her opening inquiry on the book’s final page. “[O]ne of this book’s sleeper surprises was that focusing on freedom brought me into a full throttle reckoning with anxiety, one of freedom’s most formidable adversaries.” And then, in conclusion: “I’m not going for a freedom drive that’s primarily a death drive; all that comes soon enough. Until then, I want to be in, all in: all heart, no escape.”


Via email, Maggie Nelson took me — and now, you, dear reader — deep, the only place she deems it worthwhile to go.


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MEREDITH MARAN: Your ninth book, The Argonauts, was your first best seller. Did becoming a “name” author affect your writing process with On Freedom? Did you feel more, um, free to write the book you wanted to write after that?


MAGGIE NELSON: The book got more attention when it was published than other books I’d written. But that didn’t change my sense of myself as a writer. I’ve been writing books for a long time.


As for my writing process, I have always written the book I wanted to write and looked for a publisher afterward. I can’t really imagine doing it any other way. Probably because I came up in poetry and DIY publishing, I don’t really connect writing with money. I have, and have always had, a day job.


Do you notice your writing skills improving with each book?


My books tend to be very different from each other, so each requires new skills. That keeps me at the edge of what I feel able to do, as a writer. So no, I don’t experience my writing skills improving with each book. If I did, it would probably be a bad sign.


You refer to the African American freedom struggle throughout the book. Talk about that in the context of the current racial reckoning.


There is no way to write about freedom in the United States without reckoning with the term’s racialized context and history. That is in part why, in my introduction, I make recourse to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s succinct distinction between “white freedom” and “black freedom.” Coates’s description offers a useful shorthand for two distinct, often opposed conceptualizations of the term. However, like any binary, it both clarifies and obscures. My goal was to seek clarity while also moving further into the murk.


You write that you hesitated to write a book about freedom. Why?


The book often felt unwieldy, and so sometimes cusped on feeling like a bad idea. But, as I say in The Argonauts, all books worth their salt risk the bad idea feeling at some point in their journey.


Talk about writing a book on freedom during the moment when the country is facing perhaps its greatest fascist threat, from a force whose calling card is “freedom.”


Autocratic forces aiming to compress freedom often rely on the rallying cry of freedom. That’s not a new dynamic, either here or afar; a “freedom for us, subjugation for you” model has been operative in this country since its inception.


That said, when I started writing this book, I was interested in the fact that there wasn’t a lot of freedom rhetoric emanating from the powers that be, at least not compared to the Reagan-Bush-Bush-2 eras (e.g., “freedom fries”). In fact, freedom wasn’t a big rallying cry for Trump until COVID-19 hit; the pandemic then gave him the chance to resurrect a certain zombie discourse in which individual freedom gets opposed to care or the public good.


In the second “song” or section of the book, you write about the possibilities and limitations of sexual freedom. Please expand upon your notion that practicing freedom brings burdens and blessings.


Being willing to become a sexual subject often brings up two related difficulties. The first is that, in our efforts to understand ourselves as subjects, we may feel bewildered when we recognize that our sexual choices are always delimited or constrained — sometimes by relatively benign factors (e.g., maybe the other person doesn’t want to do something you want to do), sometimes by more noxious forces (the other person doesn’t care that you said no, you don’t have access to adequate sexual health care, you might go to prison for having sex in the way you desire, etc.).


So the first burden involves recognizing that there is no pure, empowered state of free will re: sex that exists apart from other people and structures. The second involves recognizing that there are still choices to be made, and that no one is coming to save us from the responsibility of making them (nor should we necessarily want them to — though part of the complexity of sex is that we sometimes seek a release from the burden of agency through it).


More about sex and freedom, please.


Becoming more aware of, and taking more responsibility for, our sexual decisions and desires is incredibly difficult in a culture that still defaults to blame-the-victim logic. But it’s a worthy undertaking, as it’s where so many of the blessings lie.


Sex can bring up a lot of difficult feelings in people, such as ambivalence, regret, bewilderment, compulsion, anger, resentment, repulsion, and shame. One way of dealing with such feelings is to blame ourselves; another is to blame others. I wanted to see if I could create a space for something different to happen — a space in which we might feel freer to question why we do what we do, why we’ve done what we’ve done, what we might want to stop doing, what we might want to keep doing, or what we might want to do differently — without lapsing into the perp/victim rhetoric that is so common (and sometimes more comfortable) in conversations about sexual experience of almost any kind. Such an analysis is not available to us if we’re focused only on the ways in which we are unfree.


The timing of this book’s publication is spot-on, almost eerily so.


I started researching On Freedom around 2014, before I published The Argonauts, and then wrote the bulk of it between 2016 and 2020. As I was editing in 2020, the pandemic hit. The last many months of working on it were characterized by newly stressful circumstances (no childcare, a raging virus, death and suffering and injustice all around, and then, in the final stretch, horrible wildfires).


Nothing could have prepared me, or any of us, for 2020, but I have to admit that, having just researched and written a lot about the climate, I couldn’t help but feel as if we were experiencing a crash landing into the far more destabilized era that ecologists and scientists have been warning us is coming for some time. It’s still coming. I don’t say this to sound alarmist or depressing. The truth is that writing about the climate actually moved me to a different place, a better place re: climate depression/nihilism about the future. But the place it moved me to is better because it’s more reality-based, not because it’s cheery.


What kind of mood did writing On Freedom leave you in?


Figuring out how to care for ourselves and each other in the face of extremely difficult circumstances that make us feel threatened and unfree — be they pandemics, extreme weather events, or rising autocratic forces — is going to be a challenge for the rest of my life, as well as the rest of my son’s life. Facing up to that in this book was my way of becoming able to say, Okay, bring it on.


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Meredith Maran, a regular reviewer for LARB, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, is the author of The New Old Me and a dozen other books.