Author Maggie Nelson Is in Drag as a Mother and as a Married Person

We caught up with the critically acclaimed 'Argonauts' author to talk about happiness, "crappy" fiction, and the whole narrative behind "becoming a mother."

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Jul 28 2015, 5:15pm

Maggie Nelson. Photo by Harry Dodge. Courtesy of Graywolf Press

I was first pulled into Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts by its opening page, which begins with Santa Ana winds and ass-fucking on a cement floor, then swerves toward Ludwig Wittgenstein's idea of the inexpressible. During the span of the book—2007 through 2013—Nelson falls in love, marries, and has a baby with artist Harry Dodge. But the book also raises and ponders so many vital, beguiling questions that trying to summarize The Argonauts feels a lot like lying. Let's just say the book contains intellectual and cultural multitudes, from Gilles Deleuze to the X-Men. Let's also note that it details a number of notable life changes, including testosterone injections, a mother's death, and a longed-for infant's birth. In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, which Nelson has called a ghost text for The Argonauts, Barthes writes that bliss is not what corresponds to desire, but what "surprises, exceeds, disturbs, deflects" it. I found that, from one page to the next, The Argonauts inspired bliss.

For weeks, I've been talking to anyone who'll listen about The Argonauts. As it so happens, a good number of my friends have been reading it as well, and in bars and at parties, I've had more than a few opportunities to discuss the book. Still, questions lingered, so I went to the source, the author Maggie Nelson. This interview took place last month over the phone as she went from swimming laps to picking up her son from school in Los Angeles.

VICE: In certain ways, your book seems to grapple with joy, with having found love. Joy can be so difficult to write, and is not often evoked in prose. I wonder if you could speak about your experience of doing so.
Maggie Nelson: I think that happiness or joy gets a really bad rap in writing land. People are always saying happiness kills creativity, or all happiness is the same, or there's no way of expressing happiness without it being glib. So the challenge was to see if all those things were true.

At the same time, in queer theory, there's been a long, at least 30-year conversation between an optimistic and pessimistic stance. Are you going to emphasize shame, trauma, mourning? Or are you going to emphasize pleasure, utopian thinking? I'm simplifying, of course—on many levels, these stances include each other. I was interested in that theoretical conversation, as well as an autobiographical conversation.

The thing about happiness is that it's only produced in the context of knowing what aren't happy feelings. That part at the end with the stalker episode, and with the logic of paranoia, I was interested in that. Happiness doesn't come without its specters, so it was never a book that was pure flight.

You've said that, once you started realizing that what would become The Argonauts was probably a book, you felt ambivalent about it, and that it wasn't something you'd have wanted to have written.
Once you engage words like mother or family, the machinery of them is so ginormous that I have my own phobic relationships going into those things. The machinery that wants to have a narrative of growing up, this "Oh, once you were like this, and now, you've 'become a mother' or 'generated a family'"—I'm not interested in that narrative arc. It's a narrative that's almost irresistible for most people, perhaps unconsciously so.

Also, it's difficult to write about people you live with, so I thought that would be too hard to undertake. But we've managed to get through it over here.

I found so harrowing the scene when you're attending the seminar with the two scholars, Jane Gallop and Rosalind Krauss. Gallop presents photographs of herself naked with her son, and Krauss rips her apart for the work's "soft-mindedness." You also quote from the New York Times Book Review Mother's Day article that says, "No subject offers a greater opportunity for terrible writing than motherhood." What was it like to write about motherhood while being so explicitly conscious of the ways it can be, and has been, marginalized or dismissed?
When you talk back to that dismissive discourse, you can feel frozen in a reactionary mode, like, "Goddamn it, the placenta should be interesting to everybody." But that's not a very interesting place to be for any length of time. So, I think I did in the book what I would try to do with any writing, which is to give testimony to lived experience in the most interesting language or way of thinking that I could find.

When you're writing, you have to write what you have to write. Rather than write something that was a hackneyed defense of "the mother who thinks," I just wanted to demonstrate thinking. To just do, not defend. Of course, the book can't help but get bogged down in a reactionary mode sometimes, but my hope is that it does both. Barthes called this active and reactive writing.

I really like how The Argonauts starts with wind and anal sex, then veers toward Wittgenstein. How did you think about balancing the overtly autobiographical with the more abstract or theoretical?
It's the way that I write and the way that I think. The editing process of any book I write—there's an art to it because no one wants to feel like they're plunked into some huge quote. When I'm reading the work of others, I feel a palpable difference of stakes between when I'm reading somebody's words and when I'm reading a quote. And I often don't want to read the quote. I want to read what the author has to say. But as an avid reader, and a lover of so many people that I'm quoting, I really want to use their words.

So, a lot of that process involves pushing yourself not to use more of the quote than you need to, only quoting when it's exceptionally important that it be in their words, and also doing something with their words, as opposed to trying to make them stand in for something that you didn't think you could say.

I feel like I'm in drag as a mother and in drag as a married person. But that's OK because I think it would be weird and probably self-deluded otherwise. –Maggie Nelson

You said after writing Bluets that your blue wasn't your blue anymore after you wrote about it, and that you felt differently about it. Did writing The Argonauts change how you felt about anything?
That's a good question. It would be too bad if I drifted away from my family the way I drifted from the color blue [ laughs]. But I don't feel like that. What's interesting about writing autobiographically is that you kind of shoot some wad somewhere and feel like you're done. But then our lives are our lives, and similar issues keep coming up in different guises.

I guess I felt on board with making certain aspects of my family public at this moment because it de-privatizes family in a way that probably has good political ramifications for our future. Even if writing the book made me feel more settled about certain issues, I didn't write it to settle into a privatized family and stop other struggles.

Is that feeling related to the part in The Argonauts when you say that, while going around talking to people as a writer, you sometimes feel as though you're "in drag as a memoirist"? Did you feel that way about writing this book as well?
In drag as something [laughs]?

Yes.
I think being in drag is a great thing, so I think I resist, say, a collapsed biographical reading of this book as being about "becoming a mother," because of the way that the phrase preserves this role—it has a static-ness. I just don't relate to it. So, when people ask, "What's the biggest change of becoming a mother?"—which I've been asked in many interviews at this point—somehow I can't feel cheery. There are portals we go through in life that do change us, but how do we recognize those and pay honor to them, while also insisting on a sense of identity that's more fugitive than having, like, stations at the cross? So I would say, sure, I feel like I'm in drag as a mother and in drag as a married person. But that's OK because I think it would be weird and probably self-deluded otherwise.

It's not just a cliché that spending a lot of time around small people makes you think differently. –Maggie Nelson

I'm a little flabbergasted, but also not at all surprised, that so many interviews have involved people asking what the biggest change has been in becoming a mother. I feel as though, in that question, there's a fixed idea about what motherhood is, and what mothers are or should be.
What I don't like about it, too, among other things, is that a lot gets shoveled into mother in this culture. When we say "becoming a mother," there can be this whole narrative behind it, like, "I used to be this selfish bachelorette/little girl and now I'm a grownup who cares for other people." There's a disciplinary aspect of "becoming a mother," a disciplinary aspect of shoving all care onto a mother, not to mention a truly wicked disciplinary aspect of punishing mothers who can't "adequately provide" for their children.

At the same time, there are things like a sense of time or a sense of mortality. It's not just a cliché that spending a lot of time around small people makes you think differently. So you have to figure out how to deflate without dismissing. You can deflate the ideology of the thing without dismissing real feelings or observations that come with that experience.

You mention talking about the X-Men with Harry, and you say that what you hate about crappy fiction is that it "purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions." What kinds of fiction do you like, then?
I've had conversations with fiction-writer friends who basically think it's the most incendiary claim in the whole book [laughs].

You qualified it with "crappy" fiction.
I did, I really did! I don't think I had that in there originally, but then I put it in later. What I've said in response to fiction friends was, "Look how much fiction there is all through this book, whether it's Beckett's Molloy in the opening paragraph, or Alice Munro—there's so much in there, so that speaks for itself, in a way." I probably read fiction the least of any genre, but the fiction that I love tends to be more conceptual. I do read current people—oftentimes my friends, sometimes not—but I also really love fiction from the last century: I love Henry James, I love Virginia Woolf. I think I'm an impatient reader on a sentence-by-sentence level. I think that some avid fiction readers like plot and structure and character development so much that they can overlook weak sentences. I'm not one of those people [laughs]. If I come across the third bad metaphor, I'm like, "I'm out."

Yes!
What about you?

I think I share your sympathies. Unless the book's come highly recommended by someone I trust, I'll pick it up and read a few sentences from the middle. If those sentences move me, and pull me in, and they don't feel hackneyed or false, then I can keep reading.
When I lived in New York, my mom used to take me to Broadway shows when she came to town, and I remember that every time the lights went down—which, to a lot of people, is the magical moment—I felt horrified that, when they came back up, everyone was going to be pretending. The theater I liked was more like Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater, where all of those issues of performativity were foregrounded, at play. I shouldn't even say all this because, again, this is going to be more contentious than anything else.

Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts is available from Graywolf Press in bookstores and online.

Follow R. O. Kwon on Twitter.

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