Justin Vivian Bond: Childhood Revisited
Author: Robert Smith
September 12, 2011
“Essentially I didn’t buy into gender and no amount of lecturing or attempts at behavior modification could convince me that boys had to act one way and girls had to act another.”
When I heard about Justin Vivian Bond’s memoir, Tango, My Childhood, Backwards and In High Heels (Feminist Press), I tried imagining the content before having the chance to read it. Having seen Mx. Bond live on stage so many times, I thought I had a good idea of what the voice and tone would be. I thought the book would be the type of stream of consciousness Bond so famously summons onstage, weaving together entire spectrums of glowing observations, tying them together before exploding into something else from the other side of the universe.
After reading Tango, I found something else.
Which is something much more focused, constructed and measured. And although it is in a conversation-type style, the conversation has very little distractions, minus the bit about Cher’s dyslexia!
Tango is a story that is personal, yet undeniably universal at the same time. This has been said before of many memoirs…this relationship between the personal and the universal, also known as truth. Some may even know this as REALNESS.
At the end of the memoir Bond writes:
In my mid-forties now, and gratefully childless, I don’t know with any amount of certainty what it’s like to grow up in these times. But looking back I realize the amount of pressure that we were under then, and what little resources there were for the issues we were dealing with, made things pretty tough.
Although the times they are a changing, and there are definitely more resources and a somewhat, albeit slow, progression towards basic civil rights, I’d argue that by “looking back,” and more importantly sharing what you’ve found, V’s story feels mighty familiar
Initially, without reading the book, the title Tango, My Childhood, Backwards and In High Heels calls to mind a very difficult dance, made even more difficult by doing it backwards and in high heels. I read this as a metaphor for growing up queer. Growing up is incredibly difficult for anybody, and I shudder to think of the person who disagrees. But altogether moving in another direction than the majority of the people around you, and in shoes that may take a while to navigate can prove to be quite a challenge. A challenge we know already a lot of kids aren’t able to overcome. Although this is one interpretation of your title, I was wondering if you could talk about your decision process for choosing this title. The reader learns that Tango is also the code name your long-term childhood enemy/lover gave himself. I’m curious if there were any other working titles…if this was one of the last details to work out, if it was a collaboration with your publishers, or if it was what you always envisioned once you set to task of writing your book.
I called the book “Tango” because I was inspired to write the story of my childhood looking backwards through the revisionist lens of someone who had recently been diagnosed with ADD. When I was in my teens and still involved with Michael I read Pentimento, a collection of personal essays by Lillian Hellman. I was enchanted by the way she described the meaning of the word pentimento which is about peeling away the layers of memory to reveal what actually lies beneath the surface in order to repent or re-paint. Around the time I was diagnosed with ADD, Michael was sent to an institution because the courts decided he was mentally ill. In thinking back I realized he displayed a lot of the characteristics ascribed to his present diagnosis when he was a kid and so did I. My intention was to revisit the past to try to explain why we behaved in the way we did and what some of the contributing factors my have been. During his mania he gave himself the code name “Tango.” I thought that was a great name. Our relationship was kind of like a tango which is a dance of tension, of desire and repulsion. My editor at The Feminist Press, Amy Scholder, asked for a subtitle to give people a better idea what the story was about. At first I resisted because I liked the simplicity of it being only one word and to me Tango said it all. But after giving it some thought I decided to start off the book with the anecdote about my grandfather calling me Fred Astaire and how I wanted to be Ginger—that I thought I could be both Fred and Ginger. The subtitle is a reference to Ginger Roger’s famous quote, “I did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.” I’ve always been obsessed with high heels but as a child I was not allowed to have them. Oftentimes I would sashay around on tip toes imagining that I had high heels on and I was constantly looking over my shoulders to make sure I didn’t get caught or that I wasn’t being judged. Let’s face it, when you’re a transchild you’ve got to watch your ass so I decided to add, My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels to the title.
You’ve had a lot of growth in your creative life lately. I’m wondering how and when your attention to writing a book manifested itself. Did you receive a particular calling? Was this something that perhaps had been put off for many years, or a sort of result of any particular changes, evolutions in your creative/personal life? I once heard you say, “I haven’t been doing much writing, I’ve been too busy living.” In true Justin Vivian Bond spirit!
Well it was a confluence of several things really. It became a lot easier for me to focus on things and follow through with them once I began taking the meds for my ADD. Also, I’ve been working with a wonderful therapist for several years so I’ve been able to clarify a lot of confusion that I’ve suffered with in the past. But mostly it was because one day, over drinks, I was telling Amy of a conversation I’d had with my sister about my ADD diagnosis and how my sister had told me about Michael’s arrest and my take on how all these events resonated within me and Amy suggested I write it down.
I’ve known Amy for a long time and she’s always been a rock star to me. The work she did with Cookie Mueller, Kathy Acker and David Wojnarowicz was so important. These people are heroes of mine and so is Amy. Obviously, if she felt it was a story worth telling, then I would have to tell it.
As a writer I’m fascinated by other people’s writing rituals and mediums they choose. When I was younger I always had a notebook and pen. Now I cant imagine not writing on my laptop. Anne Lamott, in her creative writing go-to book Bird By Bird stresses writing every single day, at least for a couple of hours, first thing in the morning – no matter what. Do you have a similar/dissimilar discipline?
Having been recently diagnosed and treated with ADD must have affected your process/progress, no?
I am a rotten typist, but I’m a pretty good story teller so I decided to just tell it. The fortunate thing with Tango was that it had a beginning, a middle and an end. So I had a wonderful intern named Jacob Breslow come over in the mornings on his way to his job at Dean & Deluca and I’d make him coffee. We’d sit out on my fire escape and I told him the story—he could type about at fast as I could talk. After he left I’d go inside and lie down for about an hour or so. It was difficult for me to relive some of it, so at times it was emotionally exhausting. Later I’d go over what I had told him, edit and correct it and when it was finished I sent it to off to Amy. Once I had the basic story down it was about 17,000 words. Amy asked some questions and in answering those it went up to 27,000 or so and we went back and forth like that a few times. I think I ended up doing about two big chunks after the initial 17,000 words and then it was done.
I’m a project oriented person so I don’t write unless I’m working on something specific. Most of the monologues in my shows are initially improvised in performance and honed through repetition. I rarely write them down. I think the fact that I don’t write things down helps keeps my shows fresh. But with more formalized writing like TANGO and the essays I put on my website I choose my words very carefully.
How did your relationship with The Feminist Press begin? Publishing has certainly seen a lot of changes. What are your feelings about self-publishing and ebooks. I’d love to know your take on the kindle!
I don’t have a kindle but as a dendrophile I’m all for saving trees in any way possible. I’ve always felt kind of guilty about my love of books knowing that trees have to die in order for books to live so if I ever get any extra cash I will probably buy a kindle. As far as self-publishing goes I’m all for it but I never would have written the book if a brilliant editor hadn’t asked me to. I became involved with The Feminist Press by hosting a benefit for them at Joe’s Pub. I’ve been a feminist since I was a kid so it’s just a real thrill to be published by them.
In TANGO we are shown examples of a young Justin and friends “creating their own narratives.” This is a particularly queer tendency, and as we see in TANGO some are better at it than others. It was interesting to see some of the narratives you created for yourself. Towards the end you write: “In a way I was lucky because my fears about my sexuality were less intense than my need to express myself.” Could you talk about that a little bit? This queer tendency and where do you think this luck came from?
In the book I talk about how I spent the first few years of my life as my mother’s most glamorous accessory. I was the first-born, I was a son, I was doted on and I developed a real sense of self-worth because of it. My grandfather indulged my behavior when I would “pretend” I was a woman and so did some of my friends. Of course when I say “pretend to be a woman” I didn’t have the words to describe what I was actually doing. I might have been perceived to be pretending, but while I was doing it I felt like I was, in truth, being myself. My cousin Pam, who was the same age as me, was often described as being a tomboy so she understood my being a “sissy”. Either way, we just accepted one another for who we were. When I was told I should behave in certain ways based on pre-determined gender roles I didn’t get it because I didn’t feel that what I was being told was true as it made no sense to me. I did what I was told most of the time to avoid hassle and snuck into lipstick and dressed up when no one was home or when I was at my friends houses. Essentially I didn’t buy into gender and no amount of lecturing or attempts at behavior modification could convince me that boys had to act one way and girls had to act another. I thought then and I continue to think the notion that behavior, desire, intellect or aesthetic presentation is pre-determined based solely on whether you are born with a penis or a vagina is bullshit. I mean, please, that is utterly ridiculous. Who makes this stuff up?
In Tango the word “trans” is used once. You refer to yourself as a trans child in the very beginning, but the actual word is never used again. Was this a deliberate decision? Or is this inconsequential?
The young Justin writes a letter to a teacher saying v thinks v may be homosexual, and then confides in a psychologist v’s worried v might be gay. I’m wondering when you were introduced to the term trans, and/or when you identified with it?
I think one of the most important things your book does is give voice to a community that is still largely unheard and underrepresented and is still the least understood. You do this not by defining something that should already be so easy for people to understand, but by sharing your personal story – the bravest thing to do.
I didn’t set out to write a story about my experience being “trans.” I was writing about my childhood—specifically about a sexual relationship I had during my childhood—so I didn’t really think about it being a book about growing up trans. As a matter of fact I held some stories regarding my transness back because I thought it would be a distraction from the story I was telling. I wasn’t writing about being a transchild, I was writing as one. I first heard of transexuals when I was in my early teens when Rene Richards was in the news. But I’d heard of she-males before that because I came across some porno magazines in a tree house near where I grew up when I was 7 or so. Looking at those photos of people with the sexual characteristics of both genders showed me that you didn’t have to be only one or the other, that you could in fact be both. I thought that was what I was and that I’d develop breasts some day. I was pretty sure I had it figured out when I was 7 so I relaxed a little and I just waited to be proved right. Now I have.
I know you are a big reader, and now know you were also as a child. What do you think would have happened had a young Justin read Tango?
I imagine your book will inspire many transkids growing up especially, but also kids that feel like a minority in any capacity will benefit from this book.
I think I would have been a bit scared to read Tango when I was a kid. I wasn’t comfortable reading things like that because I was trying very hard to hide my truth in order to protect myself. Because I was taught that people like me were shameful and that many of the things I felt or was doing were going to cause me to go to hell. I was trying to escape my reality, not confront it.
It’s been a real blessing for me to come across the postings online from some of the young people who have read it and I’ve been deeply touched by their responses. I’m surprised by how deeply people have come to identify with the story. I’ve been moved to tears several times by the thoughtful posts I’ve read. It really gives me a wonderful feeling.
How did your family and friends react when they read TANGO? Your book describes it’s characters in all their flaws AND beauty.
I sent a copy of the book to my sister. She texted me and said it was great. So far that’s all I’ve heard. They’re not big readers.
What were some early works that really inspired you? What literature is inspiring you now?
When I was really young I loved stories about horses and animals. Charlotte‘s Web, Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague. Then I moved on to biographies. I read a lot of biographies of movie stars, I had a particular obsession with Mary, Queen of Scots. I read everything written by Lillian Hellman and Joan Didion. I liked trashy southern novels and bestsellers like The Thorn Birds. My mom read The Thorn Birds too so we shared a lot of jokes about certain lines in that novel and looked forward to watching the mini-series together. My mom was quite taken by the idea of a specific color called “ashes of roses” described in the book—so melodramatic. I loved John Steinbeck—my father also liked him. Although I don’t recall ever seeing my father reading for pleasure, there was a time when he would read to me before I went to sleep which I really enjoyed. He made sure we could go to the library any time we wanted and I went a lot. I was proud to have a library card.
Right now I’m reading the galleys for Kate Bornstein’s new book which is epic, mind-blowing and terrifically important. I’m looking forward to reading Joan Didion’s new book. The King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes was remarkable. I’m not just plugging books by The Feminist Press but I’m really excited to read Laurie Weeks’ book, Zippermouth. I love her.
Can your readers and fans look forward to another book from you?
I hope so.
And finally – Hopefully this is a fun question:
If Tango were to be made into a movie, whom would you want to play you as yourself now? Many of your passages were very cinematic. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine Sandy Duncan playing your mother.
Ha! I’ve always thought Ellen Burstyn should play my mother. Maybe I should play my mother and my mother should play me. Then I could really teach her a lesson or two! Or I could go the Joan Didion route and have Vanessa Redgrave play me. No! Vanessa Redgrave can play my mother and the part of mx Justin Vivian Bond will be played by Patti Smith -but only if she’d be willing to wax her moustache. That would be some sick casting, don’t you think? I’d see it!(Photo by Amos Mac)