Image courtesy of Tamara Faith Berger
To read Tamara Faith Berger's novels is to acknowledge that she isn't your mother's coming-of-age novelist. Tamara famously cut her literary teeth writing for smut magazines, and her protagonists are often young girls giving first-person accounts in what Tamara calls the “getting-fucked female voice,” which makes sense considering Tamara's characters are the definition of “fucked.”
Take the plot of Maidenhead, Tamara's most recent novel. In the first chapter, we witness the disintegration of a middle-class Canadian family who inadvertently decided to spend a trip to Key West in a cheap motel populated by spring breakers. Myra, the 16-year-old daughter, retreats to the beach to mope only to be flattered by the middle-aged Tanzanian “musician” who comes over to talk to her. She follows him to her hotel room, where he pees on her as she crouches on the dirty carpet. Afterwards, Myra fantasizes about the musician deflowering her. To her surprise, she's offered the chance to fulfill this fantasy when the musician follows her back to Canada with his black lover who is twice Myra's age, taking Myra on a journey that includes a porn ring, Canadian anarchists, high school, weed, abject sex games, and Myra’s attempts to explain her sexual impulses by googling Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Simone Weil.
These books are the porniest stories I've ever read on the subway, but sex isn't what's interesting about Tamara's novels—the novelist's impulse to trample social mores extends way beyond her willingness to discuss anal sex. Her exploration of philosophy and sexual politics turns plots that sound like dirty Judy Blume novels into literature. A few weeks ago, I sat down with Tamara to talk about the sex that inspired these novels, teenagers' obsession with Hegel, and why she chose to set Maidenhead's first chapters in Florida.
VICE: Like PG-13 movies, novels often circle around one sex act that—if we're lucky—will show us a woman's clavicle. Your books feature several sex scenes. Why does your fiction focus on sex?
Tamara Faith Berger: I’m as interested in sex, I think, as anybody else. But I think my interests got a bit more professional (for lack of a better word) when I got interested in this idea that you could either have sex or “do” sex for money. It could be a job. Sex became this psychological, philosophical, and writerly inquiry at the same time as it was what it was—sex. Also, I liked all the books I read that had sex in them.
Did personal experiences inspire your novel's sex scenes?
I feel like I’m the type of person who gets a lot of knowledge from one thing, and I don’t need a lot of it—I'm the same way with porn. The sexual experiences I have had are weird. They weren’t really one-night stands; they were more like I would be with somebody, and then something would happen that was a little off to the side. I would get a lot of the experience from the exceptionality of that one experience.
What’s your definition of good sex?
What’s your definition?
I prefer sex with someone I love. In the past, I have put up with bad sex with someone I love and ended up believing it was good sex.
I think you have to—sometimes it is really bad. It depends if we’re talking about an experience for ourselves, like an experience of knowledge that we’re going to be taking out into the world, or if we're talking about sex between two people—something that happens mutually. I think it could be both.
In a Proust questionnaire, you said if you could be reincarnated as a person or a thing, you’d be a very charismatic man. Would he be a writer?
No. I was thinking he would be a dandy—someone who had a lot of power and could draw a lot of people to him. I feel like men really can do that with no consequences, or the consequences are not the same for a man as for a woman who has that kind of magnetic power.
When I was reading Maidenhead I kept reassuring myself that I was never this naive in high school. But when Myra was googling Hegel, I thought, Oh my god, I remember looking up the master-slave dynamic on Wikipedia. Were you worried about your reader doubting Myra's interests because she’s such a young girl?
There’s a humiliation in realizing the limit of one’s own knowledge at a certain age. I certainly experienced getting shut down. I was not always doing what I thought I was doing or studying what I thought I was studying.
Myra is Canadian, but Maidenhead starts in Florida. Did something about Florida's seediness make you want to start the book with Myra on vacation in the Sunshine State?
It’s funny that you mention Florida, because I had so much more stuff in Maidenhead about the perils of Florida and keeping teenagers away from Florida. It just has a lot of resonance. The black-white relations in the States is heightened and different than it is in Canada. I wanted to go there, where it was the hottest. I was curious about the reception in America, because I thought the race stuff was going to be a bit too much for Americans.
It felt really intense.
I think so too. I felt like I was poking. My husband is black, and I didn’t let him read it the whole way through when I was writing it. Then he was reading the galleys, and he was like,“Fuck!”