Cameron Awkward-Rich: On Engaging with Trans Literary Tropes and Writing for the Future
Author: H. Melt
June 8, 2016
“[…] I don’t think feeling fragmented is necessarily a thing to seek to eliminate! Feelings, even unpleasant ones, can be a source of knowledge and intelligence.”
Last month, Ricochet Books released Cameron Awkward-Rich’s poetry collection Sympathetic Little Monster. The exquisitely rendered collection, as the poet Danez Smith states, “[breaks] new ground in Trans, Queer, Black, and American Letters.”
Awkward-Rich’s chapbook Transit (Button Poetry, 2015) was released last year. A Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine, their poems have appeared/are forthcoming in The Journal, The Offing, Vinyl, Nepantla, and the Indiana Review. Cam is currently a doctoral candidate in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University and has essays forthcoming in Science Fiction Studies and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.
Cam sat down to with Lambda to discuss the struggle of playing between and around language and writing for the future.
Can you start off by talking about your history with writing? How and why did you get involved with poetry?
Well, like anyone, I started writing because I was a sad little kid. I mean, I had a really really great life, idyllic in the most cliché American ideas about childhood. But, also, I always felt deeply strange somehow, like I was always just adjacent to the world of other children. So, initially, I wrote in order to alleviate that sense of strangeness: writing allowed me to invent worlds that matched my internal landscape, to invent characters who I could imagine myself as or with.
I grew up during the period in the evolution of the Internet when all kinds of message boards and the like were new and exciting and, it seems, much more active than they are now (or maybe I have just fallen out of the world wide web). I don’t know how it happened, exactly, but I wound up on some creative writing message board and posted a few of these things I had been writing, and that message board almost immediately became my first literary community. It seems entirely unlike me now, but it’s certainly true that the faceless strangers of the Internet were entirely responsible for my early feelings that writing was not only something I needed to do for myself, but also something I could do that other people might appreciate.
That said, I don’t know how I arrived at poetry in particular—I used to write mostly fiction, or short nonfiction. Maybe one explanation is that as I got older I needed elaborate fantasy worlds less and less, and needed to learn to interpret the given world more and more. And that’s what poetry has always done for me, allowed me to construct a frame around a bewildering experience/idea/feeling in order to hold it still long enough to begin to understand it.
In Sympathetic Little Monster, you openly talk about sadness. You often describe experiencing sadness in public spaces, as a result of racism and transphobia. What is the role of sadness in your work and how do you process writing about it?
Well, there are at least two answers to this question. The first is personal: I’m a fairly non-communicative person in real life. While it comes off, I think, as a kind of coldness or disinterest or wariness about intimacy (this last one is maybe true), my non-communication is often due to the fact that I have a hard time processing in the moment. I very rarely know how I feel about any given thing until I’ve gone through the process of putting language to it, whether by writing or talking to myself or (rarely) someone else. So, actually, it often happens that in the process of writing I discover the emotion lurking under a particular experience or train of thought. And, often, I discover sadness; it’s simply the feeling to which I’m most inclined.
But there is also a political or ethical answer, which is much more ambivalent. It goes something like: I think it’s important to put representations out there that catalog the potentially harmful psychic consequences of racism, transphobia, sexism, ableism, etc etc. Too often, because of the existence of certain pieces of legislation + “diversity” initiatives in higher education/hiring, etc., people believe that these are problems we’ve overcome and that contemporary radical/progressive activists are simply too stuck in the past or too sensitive or whatever. So, I think it’s important to say that these kinds of things have real, negative consequences, which continue to structure our lives. At the same time, it’s also true that black sorrow and queer/trans sorrow are often consumed in ways that reinforce these systems rather than disrupt them: I can consume your sorrow in order to alleviate my guilt about being complicit in producing it, or I can view your sorrow as inherent to you rather than (potentially) the product of a system. Either way, deadlock. So, I’m ambivalent about my own use of sadness, what it does.
But I also think both books are full of jokes! Maybe my jokes are only funny to me, but jokes are a really useful tool for navigating this bind because they allow us to inhabit sorrow while laughing at it and/or to use sorrow to create protective spaces that invite a reader in only if they are already in on the joke.
You discuss your familial relationships in the book, especially with your dad. Has writing about your family changed your interactions with them? Do you think writing has the power to shift personal relationships?
Oh, I definitely think that writing has the power to shift personal relationships. I mean, not on its own, but writing can often provide people with the clarity they need to approach a relationship from a new angle, or to more clearly articulate what happened/needs to change. It’s a way of putting some distance between yourself and the you constituted by the relationship? An example: I have always been my father’s child, have always loved him dearly, but there were (as there always are) some things that have made our relationship rocky. I think that the degree to which I understood myself as my father’s child made the bad feelings between us especially painful and difficult (for me) to interpret. It was only when I started writing about him that I was able to separate myself enough from how shitty the whole thing felt to recognize, you know, basic things. That he was a person with complex feelings and a history. That my sense of self wasn’t and shouldn’t be so tied to him. That even if I didn’t understand or agree with many of his decisions, he made them out of a desire to make sure I was ok. That I was being a jerk.
Also, once I wrote an angsty poem about my dad and step-mom when I was still skeptical about their relationship (and then I showed it to him! why, Cameron?!), which has become a running family joke. So there’s that.
You write, “it’s strange, you know, to be split. To be two things / at once.” I immediately identified with this as a gender nonconforming person and thought about the ways that I am pulled in many different directions. In what ways do you feel split? What can we do to not feel so fragmented in our lives?
Boy/Girl. Black/American. Black/Trans. I’ve felt split off from my father’s side of the family by differences in class and the weird way I’ve always lived inside the academic world. Poet/Critic. Etc. Etc. All of the usual problems of being human in a world inevitably split by difference.
With respect to the second part of this question, I have at least two, perhaps conflicting, answers. The first answer is: one of the most important things about being a part of “like” communities is that doing so can alleviate, at least temporarily, the feeling of being split. Or, at the very least, makes that feeling manageable because it becomes a shared feeling—a feeling that ties you to others rather than making you feel split off from them. So building these kinds of spaces and networks, formally or informally, is crucial. Also, I don’t know. For lack of a better word, this is one of the reasons why intersectional thinking is so necessary, because it helps us to understand how these identities which are constructed/represented or even experienced as in conflict within us are only pitted against each other within the logic of the big systems. Capitalism. The afterlife of colonialism. On and on.
But, also, I don’t think feeling fragmented is necessarily a thing to seek to eliminate! Feelings, even unpleasant ones, can be a source of knowledge and intelligence. I guess recently I’ve been trying to sit with the feeling of fragmentation, ask it questions. Like: how do these worlds and identities feel in conflict? Why? What would be gained from healing that conflict? What would be lost? Which me would survive it?
I love the way that your “Essay on the Theory of Motion” relates transness to always being in motion, rather than arriving at a fixed point. Can you say more about the series of essays about motion in the book? Why was motion an important subject to you?
Well, I started taking testosterone during the years in which I had just begun living in Oakland, a two hour public transit commute away from where I go to school. Every day I would move back and forth between these two very different, very strange landscapes (Oakland with its racial and economic violence visible on the surface of everything & Palo Alto with its enormous production of racialized and classed precarity actively hidden from view). I didn’t know how to navigate that disjuncture, who I was in those spaces. At the same time I felt like I was perpetually moving back and forth across some imaginary line that divided m’s from f’s–even now, 4.5 years later, I have a hard time predicting how I’ll be gendered by others on any given day.
Like so many trans writers before me have demonstrated, the experience of gender “transition” is easily figured by tropes of travel. I was interested in being in conversation with that history, because it feels important to me that there is a trans literary tradition to be in conversation with, however limited. But I was also never satisfied with the travel narrative-as-transition narrative. As you point out, these kinds of narratives tend to arrive at a fixed point, gender as a knowable destination, but they also tend to be weirdly neocolonial. So I wanted to try to rewrite that trope, to see if something else could be done with it.
Also, I have to reiterate, I was on the train a lot. Maybe too much, even.
You ask, “What is writing but the preservation of ghosts?” I think that preserving history through writing is important. I wonder if you also see your work as creating a new future in any way? Are there any writers who have helped you envision a better future?
Sure, of course. Part of the impulse to preserve history is the impulse to bring that history into the future, to make sure the good things aren’t lost and the bad things aren’t repeated. Also, I think of part of my work as being about creating the conditions that make it more possible for queer, trans, and poc kids to live into the future. Even just in this small way of seeing themselves represented, somewhere. Mostly, though, I feel very certain that the world is ending, so am trying to leave a trace behind for the aliens.
In all seriousness, I have a hard time thinking about the future, but there are definitely people who help me to imagine imagining it. One of the reasons I found myself drawn into the world of literary criticism/cultural studies, for example, is that so many literary critics seem so certain that art might actually provide blueprints of (or at least allow us to glimpse) better worlds. So critics like Jose Muñoz, Alison Kafer, and many other queer/crip/poc scholars are writers who have most moved me toward the future. Science/speculative fiction writers have also been really important for me in this regard, especially Octavia Butler.
The one book of poems that I have to mention, though, is Ross Gay’s most recent book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which manages what is oftentimes a contradictory pull between the living and the dead, the future and the present, so wonderfully. The book is so full of loss, but also so full of willful creation: the work of writing, of gardening, of forging sustaining and sustainable relationships. Whew.
Lastly, what writing or art brings you joy? What is bringing you joy in your life right now?
So this dovetails with the last question, but definitely the writing that brings me the most joy is that of the writers who I consider my peers: a group of mostly queer/trans and/or poc writers about my age (+/-) writing in this time and place. There are too many to name, but y’all know who you are. Sometimes their work brings me joy because it is joyous despite it all. Often their work brings me joy because of how perfectly brutal, heartbreaking, & sharp they all are. But these writers always bring me joy because it’s been so so gratifying to watch them succeed. I’m sure every generation has felt this way, but, all the same, it really does seem like their success is indicative of a necessary shift in the culture of American poetry. A new future.
(Also, I have to admit that even my stony self was moved to joy by Lemonade.)
Other things that make me smile include: my cat’s insistence on sleeping on my head like a weird hat, being in bed by 8:30pm, almost any dog. Thrilling life, I know.