Heteronormativity Is the Ultimate Karaoke: An Interview with Chelsey Johnson

Leni Zumas

When a lesbian from small-town Nebraska moves to Oregon for college, in the late ’90s, she finds her own queer paradise in Portland. After a bad breakup, she has a fling with the guy who cuts her ex-girlfriend’s hair—and he accidentally gets her pregnant. This is the premise of Chelsey Johnson’s hotly anticipated debut, Stray City, out on March 20. It’s a propulsive, compassionate, hilarious novel about coming of age at the fraught intersections of Midwestern family norms, punk rock community, and LGBTQ politics.

I had the following conversation with Johnson over email. What ended up on the cutting room floor (for space considerations) were some of the questions she asked me about writing, music, and motherhood. It’s rare for an interview subject to be so generous with her interviewer, but it doesn’t surprise me that Johnson was: her deep empathy and curiosity about other people are manifest on every page of Stray City.

Leni Zumas: It feels fitting that karaoke is a recurring pastime in this book, as karaoke is both authentic and fake. The singer uses her own voice, yet she depends on prerecorded music and a script. Your protagonist, Andrea, wrestles with the question of how to inhabit her true identity, if such a thing exists in the first place. Could you talk about how split selves and imposture function in the book?

Chelsey Johnson: This is such a good question. The typical queer person develops that split self early on—you have an outward-facing self which is the one the family, the community, the school expects, and you wear that like a protective carapace while you develop the true self underneath until it’s strong enough to withstand attack or resistance. In Andrea’s life, this is embodied in her two sets of journals: she starts writing an innocuous decoy journal of her daily life, and records her real thoughts in a secret hidden one. When she’s able to merge the two she can become her own. Then, of course, she splits again when she deviates from pure gay—but now her terror is that she’ll be taken for an imposter when she’s not.

I think mainstream heteronormativity is the ultimate karaoke. To pair up, marry, and reproduce—sure, everyone performs it in their own voice, but most of the time, the music’s been recorded long ago and in another room. Doesn’t mean it’s not a great song for you to sing. But imagine if you never listened to anything outside the karaoke book.

One thing I adored about Red Clocks is that not a single one of those women is in a situation that matches up to a prescribed ideal of what “womanhood” or childbearing is supposed to be. Even though most of the characters are straight, they’re pushing back against the social strictures of who they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to want. The book churns with rebellion.

LZ: Even as the “pair up, marry, and reproduce” tune plays on an endless (and earsplitting) loop, there are plenty of other paths to take, of course. I tried to enact this abundance in Red Clocks. I also wanted to show a person getting the things that were supposed to make her happy, and not being happy.

 CJ: That’s one of the things I found most gratifying about Red Clocks, that no path is a straight arrow to fulfillment, even the one you thought would be.

LZ: Why did you decide to make sex with a man so central to the story of a lesbian character?

CJ: I actually didn’t mean to! Originally the story was Ryan’s, if you can believe it. I’d stranded this guy in Bemidji, Minnesota with a cat and a van and a girlfriend he’d ditched. Then I realized I was boring myself with this story of a straight white guy fucking up. Like, that’s what I’m going to try to contribute to literature? Is there not enough? So I started thinking about his girlfriend, and I thought, What if she’s a lesbian? Then I got interested. I thought, well, how did that happen?

This also let me indulge my contrarian urge to counter the canonical coming-out story. I wanted to flip the script and render a world where queer was the norm and heterosexuality was seen as repulsive and deviant. Which is the world of many people, but not one I get to read much in fiction.

LZ: You flip the script so beautifully! There’s a great moment where Andrea experiences straight privilege for the first time. Being with Ryan gives her a tourist visa into a world “sodden with” straightness; and it’s weirder than the queer world.

 CJ: Straightness feels unnatural to her. Sexual disorientation!

LZ: Stray City is about different kinds of reproduction—biological, cultural, artistic. I think of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and its lens on queer family-making, as well as Lee Edelman’s critique of reproductive futurism. How do tensions between gay identity and (pro)creation play out in the novel?

CJ: Edelman definitely crossed my mind. I think parental disappointment in queerness is rooted in a sense of reproductive failure—not just the kid’s failure to procreate and make grandchildren, but to the failure to reproduce the family, which feels like a rebuke. Maybe this is changing now that so many gays marry and have children—but that also creates another tension, because now the queers are subject to the same overbearing pressures to marry and have kids that straight people have always endured. I’m glad it’s legal now, but I’m so relieved that I got to spend my twenties without marriage as an option. While my straight brothers got earfuls at every holiday, no one in my family pestered me about marrying and settling down. I just got to be on my own inscrutable path.

For Andrea, procreation is complicated because the pregnancy turns out to be something she wants despite herself, despite her cash-strapped situation, despite being part of a community where this simply is not happening and where it also signifies, very visibly and bodily, her transgression. Half the lesbians in Portland are pregnant now, but [in the ’90s] it was highly unusual. For her, it offers a chance to create family in a new way, one that encompasses queerness. I had just wrapped up this part of the novel when The Argonauts came out and I’ve never been so grateful for the timing of a book’s arrival; that is a book I’ve literally clutched to my chest.

LZ: Stray City skewers the narrowness of the hetero nuclear model, but we also get a glimpse of the so-called Lesbian Mafia: “It seemed in our urgency to redefine ourselves against the norm, we’d formed a church of our own, as doctrinaire as any, and we too abhorred a heretic.” Can you tell us a bit about this Mafia?

CJ: It’s not an official thing, but it is sort of real! For the sake of the story, I codified a set of beliefs and sense of solidarity I experienced coming up in the queer community, especially Portland’s, which is huge and vibrant but can be suffocatingly insular too. You know how it goes, every subculture polices its members in some way or another, and part of the reason I set the book back in the late ’90s is that identity politics around gender and sexual orientation were much more rigid then. I think part of that militancy was rooted in the AIDS crisis—not only had people been struggling with the age-old familial and societal damage, queer culture had been entrenched in this devastating life-or-death battle, and queer survival was a hard-won thing. Biphobia was way more intense and overt then.

 LZ: One of my favorite sentences in the book taps a dissonance between cultural messaging and lived experience: “She was not a parent but a mom, a species held in somber, near-spiritual regard while being for all practical purposes steadily crushed by the forces of public policy, like the American bison.” How did you arrive at Andrea’s particular experience of motherhood?

CJ: As a female human, I feel like all my life I’ve been steeped in motherhood, or haunted by the specter of motherhood, both when I wanted it and when I didn’t. I just paid close attention to what motherhood is made out to be and how people in my life actually experience it. There’s such dissonance between the political veneration of motherhood and the reality of a sexist and capitalist system that makes it grindingly difficult. And there’s dissonance between the emotional expectations people have, or are prescribed to have, about mothering versus the bewildering reality of it.

 LZ: I love how you foreground the gender fault lines in ’90s rock culture—“I was a girl in a record store, the ignorable class.” Painfully recognizable to me as a woman who played music in that era! Did you, or do you, play in a band? How does your own relationship to music inform the novel?


CJ: Record-shopping could be such a crushing experience then, right? I’ve played enthusiastically and poorly in many short-lived basement bands, and when I lived in Portland I experienced an amusing surprise renaissance as a session flutist, but I’m not much of a musician. Instead I’ve always hung out with people who played music, I’ve gone on tour with bands to sell merch, I volunteered for years at the rock camp for girls. I love hanging out with musicians. They have that scrappy, resourceful drive, and they’re often innately contrary in interesting ways. Plus music scenes, more than any other art, create a really accessible culture—music creates a gathering place. It’s always been an integral part of many of my communities, both queer and not, but especially in Portland. I couldn’t write a Portland story, or a queer story, without it.

But you actually do play music! I even saw your band The Red Scare play a million years ago, before we ever met. Do you still play?

 LZ: I can’t believe you saw a Red Scare show. I’m equal parts delighted and embarrassed. I still have my drums, but they’re covered in dust. Stray City makes its fair share of rock references—names of actual songs, bands, record labels, etc. What happens if a reader doesn’t get the references? Does it matter to you, for instance, if someone doesn’t know who “Elliott” is?

 CJ: I tell my writing students to geek out all the way on their obsessions—that it’s all about hitting that sweet spot where those who know exactly what you’re talking about will get the pleasure of recognition, and those who don’t will still be able to follow what you’re talking about and feel like they’re pulled into this world, like they’re being treated as an insider too. I didn’t want to name-drop in a way that shut anyone out, I hate that kind of record-store-dude esoterica preening, but I also didn’t want to over-explain and risk patronizing the reader. So, for example, Elliott—I knew many readers would instantly realize that was Elliott Smith, but if you didn’t, it wouldn’t really matter or change the content of that sentence or scene. And for the character to just call him “Elliott” conveyed the shorthand of the Portland music scene, whether or not you had any idea what the actual reference was.

 LZ: The novel is based on your own Portland days, in all their ragged analog glory. How did you handle the sticky wicket of drawing from real-life friends, lovers, acquaintances, etc. for your characters?

CJ: Well, I fictionalized any real people or events like crazy. But when I set out writing the Portland part, there was like a running Facebook comment war in my head on what I was doing. Imaginary Portlanders would rail against my inaccurate portrayal of the time period or the community or themselves, and imaginary academics would level lacerating queer-theory critiques of the whole premise. It made for some truly tortured early chapters. I think what solved it was when I switched to first person for Andrea (originally she was in close third). Her voice took over and she got to be personally accountable for the perceptions and descriptions.

LZ: What’s next for you, writing-wise?

CJ: Right now I’m working in a mini-writers’ room on a television show for Hulu. The pilot is going to start shooting soon, and we’ll find out in a couple of months if it will go to series, but meanwhile it’s been incredibly fun and stimulating to learn an entirely new way of writing. I’m also researching in the ONE Archives and hanging out with a gay elder here in Los Angeles for a nonfiction project about the gay liberation movement of the early 1970s. And I’ve started what I think will turn out to be the next novel. It has wolves in it.

Chelsey Johnson received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. Her writing has appeared in One Story, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, NPR’s Selected Shorts, and elsewhere. A native of Minnesota, she is now an assistant professor of English at the College of William & Mary.

Leni Zumas’s novel Red Clocks was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a Publishers Weekly Top 10 Fiction selection. She is also the author of the story collection Farewell Navigator and the novel The Listeners, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She teaches in the MFA program at Portland State University.