Genevieve Hudson and Leni Zumas in Conversation

Leni Zumas

Genevieve Hudson’s debut fiction collection, Pretend We Live Here, just published by Future Tense Books, maps the lives of outsiders—queer kids, artists, activists, non-native speakers—in visceral, breathtaking sentences. Hudson and I interviewed each other, via email, about writing and reading and gender and race and the Southern Gothic and non-normative spaces and how stories can change your life.

Leni Zumas:  I want to ask you about delight. The stories in Pretend We Live Here are bursting with it: delight in language, sounds, smells, bodies, sex, the strangeness of the human condition. Would you talk about your relationship to delight and how it connects to your art-making?

Genevieve Hudson:  I’m happy that you’re bringing up delight. I hope my writing possesses a kind of levity, that it doesn’t take itself too seriously and that it delights in its strangeness and humor. But while I aspire to delight the reader, I’ve never considered how delight functions in my art-making. The process of writing has never felt “delightful.” Instead, and maybe you relate to this, it’s felt like hard-won work. While trying to write, I’m often staring at the screen feeling exhausted and confused. But I don’t want this effort to be identifiable in the work itself. I’d rather the work have a spontaneity and freedom and joy to it.

I want to find the lightness in the darkness and the laugh inside the horror. This contrast creates propulsion, meaning, and balance. I take pleasure in exposing contradictions. Strange and unusual descriptions can spark delight in readers because it causes them to look from new angles. I want my readers to have fun while reading my work, for the words and pages to consume them.

Your writing is praised for the strange and stunning way you arrange words in a sentence. Your sentences often transcend their role as a load-bearing, plot-moving things. Like these from Red Clocks, for example:

The mouth is open, drenched red. The beaky lower jaw, illogically small for such a huge skull, is sown with teeth. The daughter touches one: a banana of bone.

Has moved amid this world’s foundations.

Those lines are so visual. I wonder what came first, the sentence or the image? Did the sentence arrive from a close look at a mental picture or did a close look at a sentence create an image where there was none? Or was it something else entirely?

LZ:  I usually begin with a word or an image—here, “mouth” was what I started with, the whale’s mouth, a body part I was imagining but not literally looking at. From “mouth,” I began to associate: whale, water, drench, blood, red, mouth, beaky, illogically —> small (for the double L’s) —> skull (more L’s!).  Gary Lutz talks about this phenomenon in his essay “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place”: how one or two letters in a word give rise to another word with some kind of sonic or visual affiliation, allowing the writer to choose by listening and seeing, rather than by plonking along “rationally.” I remember an example he cites from a Christine Schutt story: “Here is the house at night, lit up tall and tallowy.” (I am an L person!) The brilliance here is that “tallowy” carries forward the “tall” while also suggesting candles. A candle in each window.

GH:  While we’re on the topic of language, that makes me think of this line from Red Clocks:

 What does the word “spinster” do that “bachelor” doesn’t do? Why do they carry different associations? These are language acts, people!

I love the term language acts. Can you talk about what a language act is—and the power or lack of power you think language acts wield in society?

LZ:  It seems so obvious, right, that words do things in the world? That their meanings have consequences? I remember more than one boy at my college wearing a Wittgenstein t-shirt that said WORDS ARE DEEDS. Yet much of the time language is dismissed as “only” words, as in “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but…” We currently have a president who is constantly walking back his fucked-up statements by claiming they were “just jokes” or “just locker room talk.” Yet these statements incite actual, terrible harm in the world. They incite violence against actual human bodies and minds.

The Biographer character talks about “language acts” with her high school students because she wants them to stay alert to the ways language shapes us, limits us, traps us. The fact that the term for “umarried man” has a positive, carefree vibe, while the term for “umarried woman” has deeply negative connotations—this difference encodes a whole history of misogyny.

One of the most vital categories of investigation in your book is gender—specifically how unstable it can be. You write about masking, playacting, border-crossing, code-switching. What sorts of texts, histories, and/or personal experiences have informed the way these stories think about, and through, gender?

GH:  The word unstable is key here. I don’t see gender as a fixed thing but, like many others, as a performance. It is a continual enactment that can and often does change as a person grows. My own body and gender expression and the gender performance of my queer and straight friends have informed most of my ideas about gender. I watch how the world responds to a femme cis-woman versus a femme man versus a butch cis-man versus a butch woman. I’m curious about the ways I’ve tried to hide my queerness through codeswitching or modifying my gender expression in certain social situations. Sometimes I have a strong impulse to shave my legs when I visit my family in Alabama. This impulse always intrigues me. Where does that desire come from? Am I trying to mask something? Codeswitch? Placate? Fit in or feel safe?

The characters I write about are often queer, and they engage in conversations and excavate topics that are familiar to me as a queer person. In the story “Bad Dangerous,” the narrator recounts a conversation she had with her best friend, a gay man, where he confesses that he is curious about what it would be like to “experiment” sexually with a woman. This might seem like flipping the script since in mainstream culture sexual experimentation is seen as crossing over from “straight” to “gay.” But that just depends on whose perspective we’re accompanying. I like inverting the expectation like this so that the outside becomes in.

A shortlist of texts, people and histories that have shaped my ideas about gender: Gender Outlaw, Stone Butch Blues, The Argonauts, the work of Dean Spade, Michelle Tea, Wayne Koestenbaum, Eileen Myles, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the illustrated work of Alison Bechdel, Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Susan Sontag’s journals, Thomas Page McBee, Danez Smith’s poems, Casey Legler photoshoots, my buddy Cooper Lee Bombardier, the Food 4 Thot podcast, Hello Mr., my group of activist friends in Amsterdam, the drag performances of Miss Pepper Pepper and Stacy Stl Lisa. God, there’s so much. I’m very into the show Pose right now, which just came out and follows a group of queer and trans people in the 1980s New York ball scene.

There’s a section of your website titled Gratitudes. On this page, you’ve collaged the portraits of women—women writers, artists, thinkers, musicians and creators both dead and alive. I love looking at the page. It makes me feel like I’m a part of something. Like those are my foremothers.  Why did you choose to include gratitudes on your website? Why women?

LZ:  The world is loaded with reminders of white men’s contributions to the world, whereas the contributions of people of color and white women have so often been played down, distorted, erased, or never acknowledged in the first place. So the gratitude list is a reminder—to myself and to anyone who stumbles upon my website—that these particular women have written or painted or thought or played things that matter. These women have made my own art possible. None of us creates in a vacuum; all of us inherit tools and materials. To acknowledge this gratefully is more accurate and more ethical, I think, than to perpetuate the myth of the solitary genius who deserves all the credit for his own accomplishments. I use “his” here deliberately: European-American culture has a long and shitty tradition of venerating male artists as lone wolves, self-taught magicians.

GH:  In an interview with David Naimon on his podcast Between the Covers, he asks you about your approach to writing about race, specifically whiteness, as a white person. He also brings up Claudia Rankine and her work on the racial imaginary. Rankine challenges white writers to think about their whiteness while they write—to write whiteness, which is not a neutral, default state, but a color, too. Can you talk more about how you try to bring an awareness to whiteness when writing white characters in a mostly white community?

LZ:  When the Daughter character, Mattie, is stopped at the northern border and accused of trying to enter Canada for an abortion, it begins to dawn on her that because she is white she might be let off with a slap on the wrist, whereas her best friend, Yasmine, who is black, would not have been granted the same indulgence. The white Canadian patrol officer says that Mattie reminds him of his daughters—a seemingly innocent remark that is actually insidious, a symptom of white privilege. What happens if a person does not resemble the family of a law enforcement official? What happens if a person isn’t “famili-ar”?

Genevieve, your fictional worlds are populated by bodies, minds, sexualities, and/or personalities that don’t fit into mainstream society; the so-called normal world’s contours aren’t quite the right shape for them. How does your work construct difference, acceptance, inclusion, and exclusion?

GH:  Strangeness interests me. I’m intrigued by stories about people who are misfit for the world. When the world doesn’t fit you or when you don’t fit the world, you’re forced to imagine a new way of being; ones are inherently more provocative and interesting than the ones fed to us by the power structures above. I wasn’t attempting to comment on or make any specific judgement on the dominant culture in my writing but rather to accurately reproduce the inner lives of people outside of it. By writing from the worldview of a misfit, I hoped to call into question the stabilizing forces in society that we take for granted as normal. What is normal other than something that has been reproduced millions of times until it feels natural? How can understanding different perspectives illuminate how we are all complicit in creating structures that reproduce exclusion?

LZ:  In A Little in Love with Everyone, published earlier this year, you talk about coming of age as a queer person in the American South and not having many—or sometimes any—useful identity-models in popular culture. How is queer identity learned, inherited, practiced in a heteronormative and homophobic culture? Do you see Pretend We Live Here as a text that offers models to your readers?

GH:  Representation can change everything. It models behavior, validates identity, and provides a roadmap to different ways of being. In a society of rigid norms, if there’s no public model for a specific life it can seem like it doesn’t exist. It’s incredibly brave when people carve out and shape new identities. They create something where there was nothing. These people are true catalysts for change. Many of them risk own safety by living their authentic lives. Existing in a homophobic culture means existing in a society bent on disciplining, mainstreaming, and normalizing the body and its desires. Anything outside of the norm gets read as threatening, abhorrent, and a challenge to the system that keeps the powerful in power. Historically queer culture or any marginalized culture gets constructed, shaped and passed down in the shadows—at parties, in poetry collections, in zines, in bedrooms, through music, through gossip and scandal and rumor. This secret archiving of culture and identity helps to preserve stories, legacy, and cultural norms.

I can only hope that Pretend We Live Here offers stories about queer people that are helpful or at least fun to read about for people who are hungry for queer stories. Luckily there are many more queer narratives available in our cultural moment today than there were to me as a young person in Alabama in the 90s. So, this book is adding to a canon that’s already expanded. But I believe it’s important to keep adding new stories and keep widening the aperture of what we can see.

LZ:  Speaking of Alabama: some of these stories, like “God Hospital,” “Cultural Relativism,” and “Scarecrow,” can be read as part of a Southern Gothic tradition. How do you feel about the Southern Gothic label?

GH:  To me, Southern Gothic is a combo of freak literature and the ghost story. It’s an attempt to render the South in all its dark, paranoid, God-obsessed truth and to do it with concern and clarity. Flannery O’Connor said of Southern Gothic literature in her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” that “In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” If that is what Southern Gothic literature, at its best, can achieve, then I’m excited to write into its legacy. There are a few queer writers from the South right now that I think are producing brilliant, evocative work. Brandon Taylor and Nick White are two of them. And I’m discovering more all the time. It’s an interesting time to be writing about and from the Deep South.

LZ:  You’ve lived for the past several years in Holland. How has this transnational experience affected your work?

GH:  Living abroad has given me an outsider’s perspective and a distance from the subjects I’m writing about that has been useful. I’ve found that I can write about America more clearly when I’m physically outside of America. I’m forced to imagine the places more viscerally because they are not in front of me. I’m confronted newness all the time—the fashion, the smells, the architecture, the food. It makes the imagination run. I maintain my outsider’s perspective even when writing about Amsterdam or other countries I’m in because though I’m physically in the foreign city, I will never inhabit it the way a person from there will. I will always approach it with distance.

Joan Didion has said: “Grammar is a piano I play by ear.” Leni, I’ve heard you speak about how playing drums in bands informed the way you think about the musicality of writing. I feel this when I read your prose, in the auditory sensations of sentences like these in Red Clocks:

Fat shreds of flesh flap in the wind. “Get it off! Get it off!” yells a boy, pawing at ropes of innards stuck to his chest.

There is a music in these lines, a clean sonic beauty. Can you talk about how sound influences your syntactical choices? Everyone knows that writing has a rhythm but does it, like songs, also have a melody? And if so, what’s yours?

LZ:  The Didion quote reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s maxim: “Style is a very simple matter. It is all rhythm.” Nobody’s ever asked me about melody! I’ve played drums on and off since the age of 20, and I’ve been writing stories since I was seven, so writing came first; but the way I think about music (as a drummer) is connected to my obsession (as a writer) with cadence, interval, and sound. The acoustics of a sentence—the scrape and thump of its syllables, the clatter or slide of its beats—come first.

The “innards” example is from a scene where a dead sperm whale has exploded upon being cut open. I wanted the language to produce the jagged, jarring feel of what was happening on the beach. The sentence “Fat shreds of flesh flap in the wind” has awkward angles; you can’t say it quickly; the repeated “sh” and “fl” are visual and sonic obstacles. In this case my melody is—serrated?

GH:  Do you listen to music when you write?

LZ:  Often, yes. When I was drafting the later stories in Farewell Navigator, I listened to loud, fast, short songs. During The Listeners, I had the Phillip Glass Dracula soundtrack on repeat. But I wrote Red Clocks without music. I couldn’t tell you why.

Gen, many of your characters experience deprivation around food, whether or not self-imposed—including a woman who’s just had throat surgery, a pretend fruitarian on a vegan activist bus, and a girl with rotting teeth. In what ways is hunger important in your work?

GH:  Hunger fascinates me as an aesthetic impulse and a physical symptom. In graduate school, I took a seminar on hunger and became very interested in the literary representations of and engagement with food and anorexia, especially in relationship to deprivation and control.  I’m intrigued by the way hunger shows up in people’s lives, and how it gets manipulated and restrained. Hunger is so animal. It’s a craving that can be unwieldy and ugly and expose our deepest appetites. It’s a place where people try to exert power and control. Hunger is a stand-in for desire and need. In Buddhist thought, desire is seen as the root of suffering. But to desire is one of our most human impulses. The hunger many of my characters possess can be read as a kind of outsized desire they struggle to gain authority over. The deprivation, especially when it is self-imposed, is their attempt to exert control over a life that has left them feeling powerless. This is especially true for the pretend fruitarian on the vegan activist bus. She began her fruit fast to punish herself for a sexual affair she had with her sister’s husband. Her hunger for transgressive sex, in this case, was met with the forced deprivation of another desire.

I found myself annoyed while listening to a recent radio interview with you where your interviewer asked you to defend a phrase you used in Red Clocks. The phrase in question was “the clump,” which is how the pregnant teenage character Maddie refers to her embryo. The male interviewer asked you, essentially, if you could understand how the phrase “the clump” could offend or alienate readers of your book. I thought you answered this question with a lot of integrity, but I was struck by two things. First, that he was applying the same kind of paternalistic disciplining structures to your writing that you are challenging in Red Clocks. Second, that he was folding Maddie’s perspective into your perspective as the author, making them one. Do you remember this moment? If so, did it annoy you, too?

LZ:  Oh, yeah, I remember it. During the taping, I was so nervous (it was my first time ever on NPR) that I didn’t fully register the problem; but later, listening to the show, I couldn’t believe he had asked me that. Twice, in fact—he pressed me. The question itself, as you say, was condescending: “But can you understand how a couple longing for a baby, who just saw something move on the ultrasound screen, wouldn’t call it ‘the clump’?” Sure I can understand it, but what does that have to do with a pregnant 15-year-old character using the word “clump”? Moreover, I don’t control who gets offended or alienated by what I write; if I tried to, I wouldn’t be writing fiction: I’d be writing a campaign speech.

GH:  While talking with The Guardian about her new book Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, writer Kristin J Sollee says, “Witches, sluts, and feminists are the trifecta of terror for the patriarchy.” Later she adds, “To me, the primal impulse behind each of these contested identities is self-sovereignty … witches, sluts, and feminists embody the potential for self-directed feminine power, and sexual and intellectual freedom.”

This perspective reminded me so much of Red Clocks—which, I think, contains all three of these subversive roles: witches, sluts and feminists. Does that resonate with you? What was it like to write about witches, sluts and feminists?

LZ:  The self-sovereignty issue is everything. The most urgent issues in our national conversation these days are about bodily autonomy: reproductive rights, #MeToo, incarceration, state-sponsored violence against people of color. Workplace harassment isn’t equivalent to rape, and rape isn’t equivalent to barring access to birth control or passing a “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection” bill. All of them, however, raise the same question: Is a person free to decide what happens to her body? To shout “Yes”—to assert control over the territory of oneself—threatens the patriarchy, as Sollee points out.

Some of the characters in Red Clocks dwell in this question. The Daughter, for instance, can’t understand why a bunch of old walruses on Capitol Hill care what she does with the cluster of cells growing in her uterus. The Biographer is enraged that a medical procedure (in vitro fertilization) is denied to her on the basis of politicians’ fundamentalist religious beliefs.

GH:  Who do you wish would read your book?  

LZ:  First: anyone and everyone! Second: Mike Pence, though it’s safe to say he never will. A friend of mine mailed copies of Red Clocks to Republican senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski; it would be great if they read it before voting on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation. But I’m not holding my breath.

Who do you wish would read yours?

GH:  Of course, I want as many people as possible to read my book, but I especially hope it finds those who need it. That might sound a little vague or woo-woo, but there have been times in my life where the right book has appeared at the right time and the result was nothing short of magic. If my book could be that for someone, the right book at the right time, a book that stirs and transforms someone, that would be the highest honor I can imagine.

Genevieve Hudson is the author of A Little in Love with Everyone, a book on Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (Fiction Advocate, 2018); and the story collection Pretend We Live Here (Future Tense Books, 2018). She received an MFA in creative writing from Portland State University, where she occasionally teaches fiction and gender studies courses. She lives in Amsterdam. Find her at genevievehudsonwriter.com.

Leni Zumas is the author of Red Clocks (Little, Brown, 2018), The Listeners (Tin House, 2012), and Farewell Navigator: Stories (Open City, 2008). She directs the MFA program at Portland State University. Find her at lenizumas.com.