For several weeks during the last days of summer in 2009, I occupied a cafe's window seat while waves of gays streamed by glass walls situated like a ship's prow on Santa Monica Boulevard and Robertson. Reading Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, I was lulled into a near dream state by the novel's stream of consciousness prose, experiencing all the pleasure of an opium daze -- albeit without needle or Hep C.
When Mattilda told me to look for a review copy of her new memoir, The End of San Francisco, I started checking the mail like a fourth grader eagerly waiting for his latest Scholastic Book Club order. Radically different than So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, her (initially) more conventional memoir returns Mattilda to the Bay Area, a fin-de-siècle late '90s narrative that captures the city's underground demimondaine of artists, punks, activists, anarchists and addicts whose ranks will soon be, if not completely swept away by the tech boom's false promises, then severely thinned by gentrification.
Mattilda's makes use of memoir's conventional narrative to illustrate her pedophile-psychiatrist father's death, a strategy that gives way to a more recognizably disruptive story featuring numerous costume changes, ecstasy-fueled turns on the dance floor, and cross country trips. But whatever pleasure's one might draw from the politics, protests and partying is forever haunted by her father's spectral presence. Limned with a belief in narrative's power to assuage a near inconsolable sense of regret and sadness, I recently spoke with Mattilda's about her latest work.
Tomas Mournian: I was surprised by your choice to open The End of San Francisco with what's essentially, a well-written, conventional style.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore : The first chapter I wrote right when I went to visit my father before he died of cancer. It all felt monumental. Linear too, and so I preserved to that structure. But then I return to the overwhelm of the everyday, and that's when everything flies off the rails. I want the chapters to brush up against one another rather than blending together. I think there's more possibility for expressing honest emotions that way. The book is structured by emotion rather than conventional plot structure, that's what drives the narrative and opens up the possibilities.
Tomas Mournian: Yet you repeatedly return to your father's death.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Because that was a pivotal experience for me where I was able to express so many emotions that I never expected I would even want to manifest.
Tomas Mournian: Primarily?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Love. I was able to be so present in all of my emotion, and he would give me nothing. I mean he listened, maybe for the first time in my life, but was that only because he was drugged out on morphine and inching toward death? Or because I hadn't spoken to him since confronting him about sexually abusing me as a kid 11 years before?
Tomas Mournian: Which you contrast with narrative's other concerns -- drugs, feminism and the queer experience.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: The feminism I invoke in The End of San Francisco is a feminism I learned from radical outsider queers, drug addicts, freaks, whores, direct action troublemakers, vegans, anarchists, and incest survivors fleeing the violence of the world around us, our parents and everything we were supposed to be. We were trying to create something else, something we could live with, an alternative beyond the hideous hierarchies of straight or gay normalcy. We were successful, and we failed -- oh, how we failed! That's what I'm examining in the book -- my political, social, sexual, ethical and emotional formations -- and their undoing.
Tomas Mournian: Why did you chose to segue from the phrase, "But I didn't talk about how I believed" to the next chapter, "Wide Awake"?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: This question of believing is so central to the book. When I first moved to San Francisco in the early-'90s I really believed in the radical queer cultures that I was a part of, I really believed that we were creating alternatives to the rot around us. But then, over and over again, these are the people and cultures that have let me down the most, in such brutal and heartbreaking ways. But still, I continue to believe, over and over again. In a way this book is an exorcism. I'm trying to let go of that hope that keeps throwing me against walls, wrecking me, leaving me stranded, without letting go of the values I still hold dear.
Tomas Mournian: "Certain faggots whispered cautiously about whether misogyny was a required part of transitioning into masculine realities." I loved how you wove the slow motion collapse of gender and the mainstreaming of trans identities into the narrative.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: I think that the term transgender, at its initiation, holds so much potential. The possibility of fluidity and transformation across and between conventional gender categories, the possibility of transforming the very categories. And yes, there are so many more options for gender self-determination now than 20 years ago, when I was first coming of age as an avowedly queer person. At the same time, some of these new categories become as hierarchical, as obsessed with passing and hiding privilege as the old ones. We need more options for everyone, not just for those willing and/or able to participate in charades of belonging.
Tomas Mournian: When you were a sex worker, why do you think clients so often asked, "Are you gay?"
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Believe it or not, when I was a whore, I got so used to working the drag of casual masculinity that often tricks really did wonder if I was straight. Your guess is as good as mine.
Tomas Mournian: Your description of Chicago house music as, "hard clanky knock you down after hours magic" references Andrew Holleran's Dancer From the Dance, a world rested upon the axis of queer desire and '70s loft music.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: There's always a soft spot in my mind for the moment when you step into the beat and it might change your life. I'll take that moment when I can get it. Music, like sex, can be a lens to view the rest of the world around us, and an escape. And yes, at heart I am an after-hours house child, even if now I go to bed at 11 I still fantasize about some late-night Danny Tenaglia magic, trust me on that one -- there was a time when clubs were so central to my life and I cherish the camaraderie that I found there, even if I always knew that it was escapist at best. Sometimes you get caught in that place, though, even if you know better: What are the options, really? Maybe doing a few lines of coke is better than some of the other possibilities.
Tomas Mournian: Your early anorexia spoke to the larger issue. Why do you think so many gay boys/men subscribe to physical or nutritional deprivation?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: I was anorexic as a teenager, because I wanted to take my body back from my parents. I wanted control. In fact, I didn't want a body at all. I wanted my body to disappear, so I could live entirely in my head. I think this is true for a lot of fags, queers, freaks, those of us who grow up thinking we should die or disappear, internalizing this message but still trying to survive. It's a coping mechanism. When you don't have safety, you'll try anything, right? Any desperate act for the tiniest bit of autonomy, even if it comes at the cost of internal harm.
Tomas Mournian: In the Joanne section you write, "Rules for my addictions" but you don't define yourself an addict. Why do you think of the culture of addiction and recovery has emerged to somewhat define millennial notions gay culture?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Sometimes I think I've lost more friends to AA than to drugs. Certainly in the last 10 years that's true. And I say that as someone who hasn't done any drugs in over 12 years. No cigarettes, no alcohol, no coffee. I stopped doing drugs because they stopped helping me. I don't mean that it was easy -- it took years. But I don't see myself in recovery: I don't want to use the 12-step language. Nothing scares me more than group think, or cult-like behavior, and so often that's what I see with the 12-step model. I know people who have really benefited from 12-step groups, but you have to do it in a really questioning way or else it eats you up just like any other addiction.
Tomas Mournian: I was surprised when you mentioned the publicist at City Lights had pitched you to the LA Times Festival of Books, an event that has been nothing if not consistent about its perennial failure to include queer voices. But that institutional homophobia is hardly unique, in fact, I'd argue its pervasive, even in gay oriented venues.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: I think a lot of gay and queer authors spend an incredible amount of energy worrying that they aren't accepted by the mainstream. To me this is obvious. If you're writing something challenging, the power brokers and the dealmakers at the center don't want to let you in. That doesn't mean you're not changing the center. I don't mean to suggest that I don't want The New York Times or The New York Review of Books to review my work. I certainly do. But, I don't expect it will ever happen. Is that okay? Of course not. But does it matter? It matters if those centers of power are what means something, but I don't think they do. Yes, they drive the marketplace, so to speak, but do I read the fucking New Yorker? Are you kidding me?
Tomas Mournian: What's your taking global warming?
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: The disasters of global warming are completely avoidable if the United States would just change its policies. It's that simple. And it doesn't seem like that will ever happen, which doesn't bode well for the planet.