Writing Toward Communal Responsibility: A Conversation with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

March 4, 2021   •   By M. Buna

MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE is an activist and author who has written for a variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Review of Books, BOMB, Bookforum, Time Out New York, Utne Reader, Boston Review, The Baffler, n+1, San Francisco Chronicle, New Inquiry, Ploughshares, and Bookslut. For 10 years, she was also the reviews editor and a regular columnist for the feminist magazine Make/shift. Mattilda is currently at work on Touching the Art, a book about her relationship with her late grandmother, a visual artist from Baltimore, and she just finished a new anthology, Between Certain Death and a Possible Future: Queer Writing on Growing up with the AIDS Crisis, forthcoming at Arsenal Pulp Press in October 2021.

Underscored by an imagined conversation between an ice cube and an ice cube tray, her latest book, The Freezer Door (Semiotext(e), 2020), mixes genres (poetry, memoir, fiction) to come up against the gentrification of desire, the assimilation of the queer body, and the carceral logic of “the violence of the cops as proof of their necessity” that brings about the policing of thought and language in self-appointed safe spaces (“There’s too much overlap between cops and gay men, I mean this in every way possible.”). What Mattilda proposes instead is an intimate yet critical questioning of everything, including love itself.

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M. BUNA: The concept of toxic masculinity suggests that there is also a non-toxic version of it. You write: “The tyranny of masculinity must end. Also, the masculinity of tyranny. And, tyranny.” Do you think there is anything left worth saving from masculinity as an ideal?

MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE: I don’t think there’s anything worth saving from any gender ideals. As soon as the ideal comes into play, we get stuck in binary nonsense about “male” and “female” or “masculine” and “feminine” that needs to be entirely discarded if we ever want to get to a place of self-determination for everyone, which is certainly the goal I have in mind.

Regardless of ideology, the rhetoric of self-determination and autonomy usually does end up (re)producing new hierarchies — in queer contexts, who gets determined and eventually erased by whom?

For a long time, I believed in the rhetoric of inclusion in oppositional queer spaces — creating lust and love on our own terms, taking care of one another, the rhetoric of mutuality and negotiation and intimacy and accountability and communal care. I mean I still believe in these values, but at this point I feel the failure of these queer dreams more than the possibility. One thing that has struck me especially intensely over the last decade is the sense that I, someone who has formed and been formed by radical queer spaces over the last 30 years (30 years, did I just say that? Yes, 30 years!), when I go into these spaces, more frequently than not, I feel like I do not belong.

And I wonder what it could possibly feel like for someone without access to the rhetoric and analysis that I have. In many ways, avowed queer spaces came about as alternatives to the racism, classism, misogyny, body fascism, and self-hatred in gay male spaces. And queer spaces do provide some alternatives to this, but they also impose new hierarchies based on whose bodies or genders or behaviors are not welcome based on surface appearance more than integrity. Sometimes the violence in these worlds is not so different from that in the straight or gay worlds we’re escaping. I think scene is always the enemy of accountability, so maybe I want a world where no one has to belong as much as a world where everyone belongs. I don’t want to reenact the same brutality in a different shape. I don’t want to become the police, I want to end policing in all its forms.

“A sexual revolution without a political revolution isn’t a revolution at all, it’s just consumer choice branded as liberation.” What does it take to avoid the commodification of desire?

In The Freezer Door, I’m not trying to provide answers as much as to offer questions that may be unanswerable. I’m in search of an embodied truth, and some of that truth is about coming up against walls. I write toward the gaps in feeling, the places where desire stops, the moments where presence becomes impossible, where longing undoes rhetoric or rhetoric undoes longing. Can desire ever just be desire? I guess I want to reach toward what we may never find, but reach anyway.

“Love is love” seems to be everybody’s favorite rallying cry. But is it really love when critical analysis is missing, and any attempted critique of the object/subject of love is met with suspicion?

In The Freezer Door, I say that “love is love” isn’t the most helpful slogan for those of us who were told by families who abused us that they loved us the most. Love without critical analysis is just abuse waiting to happen.

With the tyrannical prioritization of coupledom over other kinds of relationships, there seems to be little room to practice engagements that oppose the ownership of other people’s desires. What’s your idea of friendship, and how do you put it into practice?

Friendship to me is companionship, camaraderie, love without borders, a place in one another’s arms, us against the world, a permanent bond, a commitment to grow together, to show each other our wounds, to show up, to nurture, to nourish, to reveal everything, to dig through the past to imagine a future, to hold hands or hearts or bodies and minds and savor the possibilities of connecting through vulnerability most of all, I think. To get to the place where you can let everything go, let down your guard, move together through this world in order to go on. It’s a commitment to a life beyond walls, a life against the odds, with one another, changing everything.

In Larry Mitchell’s The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions, the feminist wisdom women share with others is that “there are two important things to remember about the coming revolutions. The first is that we will get our asses kicked. The second is that we will win.” When recalling your encounter with Tara-Michelle Ziniuk, you remembered her telling you: “You called it feminism, and I called it anarchism, and it’s the same thing.” How does feminism hold you as someone who identifies as a genderqueer person, and ultimately as a queen?

Feminism is the politic that has helped me to articulate myself, and queer is my embodied practice of staying alive. I didn’t know about feminism when I was four on the playground and everyone was calling me faggot or sissy, or eight and listening to my father control everyone in the house with his masculine rage, or 12 and deciding to do my own dishes because I thought it was unjust for my mother to do all the dishes, or 13 and witnessing the violence of teenage courtship when all the girls suddenly developed crushes on the boys we used to hate together, but this was where I developed my feminist analysis, even if I didn’t have that language. So it’s been there for me since I was a child.

But, while I have always been a part of feminism, I’ve always been apart from the type of feminism that is based on a particular type of body that is not mine, as someone socialized male who knew I would never be a man, even as the world told me that was the only option to stay alive. So feminism helped me to reject that directive, but, as a genderqueer faggot and a queen, as someone holding up that ragged hot pink trans umbrella in a world that insists on purity that will never be mine, the trans feminism I embrace is one that intertwines with my queeniness, with my faggotry. I need both or none at all.

“I’m still holding out for the day when we can all marry corporations.” — Irony aside, is there any use to queering dominant, oppressive institutions?

No, this just makes dominant oppressive institutions stronger.

Could one escape from growing out of idealism as an adult?

I think you’re pointing to the place in The Freezer Door where I say that as a child, adults would say, “Oh, you’re so idealistic,” as if idealism is something you need to grow out of in order to grow up. And if that’s the case, what’s the point of growing up? I still hold out hope for that sudden moment on the street that will change everything, the dream of the city as the place where we find everything and everyone that we never imagined, where an unexpected encounter collapses the boundaries of imagination.

Why do you (still) write?

I write in order to stay alive — to understand and convey and process the world around me, to change language in order to change myself, to feel everything, to reach toward clarity, to challenge easy answers, to examine the contradictions so that I can feel the possibilities for an embodied truth. So that I can feel everything, especially what I’m most afraid to say — that’s what I need to say, right? That’s the place with the most potential for healing or feeling or growing or learning beyond yearning, beyond expectation. And into a new way of self-expression that becomes so personal, so intimate, so raw and revealing that it can reach beyond propriety and expectation, reach into a communal connection beyond words. That’s my hope.

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M. Buna is a freelance writer.